Disability & Scleroderma: Benefits and Filing Information

If your scleroderma has begun to affects your organs, you're likely to qualify for disability benefits.

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Scleroderma is an autoimmune disease that affects the body's connective tissue. Some cases are localized to the skin, causing chronic hardening and tightening. More severe cases, called "systemic scleroderma," affect other organs and body systems, such as the heart, lungs, kidneys, or digestive system.

Scleroderma can cause disabling symptoms, such as painful swelling of the joints, numbness and pain in the hands and feet, and even pulmonary and digestive difficulties because of scarring or inflammation of the tissues in the lungs and esophagus.

Can I Get Disability for My Scleroderma?

Some diseases, including systemic scleroderma, are eligible for automatic approval if the illness meets the requirements of one of the Social Security Administration's (SSA) impairment "listings." In other words, if the SSA finds the required criteria for the scleroderma listing in your medical records, it won't have to consider how your condition affects your ability to work.

The listing for scleroderma is listing 14.04, for systemic sclerosis. To qualify under this listing, you must have a diagnosis of systemic scleroderma and meet one of the four following conditions.

Multiple Body Systems Affected

Your scleroderma affects two or more of your organs or "body systems" (such as the skin or pulmonary system), and one organ or body system is affected to at least a "moderate" level of severity, and you experience at least two of the following symptoms:

  • fever
  • malaise (feeling unwell)
  • severe fatigue, or
  • involuntary weight loss.

Contractures in Hands or Feet

You have one of the following:

  • toe contractures or deformities in one or both feet that prevent you from walking without an assistive device that:
    • requires two hands (like a walker, bilateral crutches, or a manual wheelchair), or
    • requires only one hand (like a cane), but you're unable to use the other hand due to a physical impairment.

OR

  • finger contractures or deformities in both hands that prevent you from performing fine and gross movements like lifting objects, sorting papers, holding a pen, or tying your shoe.

Atrophy in Arms or Legs

You have one of the following:

  • irreversible atrophy in one or both of your legs that prevents you from walking without an assistive device that:
    • requires two hands (like a walker, bilateral crutches, or a manual wheelchair), or
    • requires only one hand (like a cane), but you're unable to use the other hand due to a physical impairment.

OR

  • irreversible atrophy in both arms that prevents you from performing fine and gross movements like lifting objects, sorting papers, holding a pen, or tying your shoe.

Raynaud's Phenomenon

You have Raynaud's phenomenon with one of the following:

  • gangrene in at least two limbs (arms and/or legs)
  • ischemia (lack of blood supply) with open sores on the toes that prevent you from walking without an assistive device that:
    • requires two hands (like a walker, bilateral crutches, or a manual wheelchair), or
    • requires only one hand (like a cane), but you're unable to use the other hand due to a physical impairment.

OR

  • ischemia (lack of blood supply) with open sores on the fingers that prevent you from performing fine and gross movements like lifting objects, sorting papers, holding a pen, or tying your shoe.

Flare-Ups Causing Limitations

You have "repeated manifestations" (recurrent symptoms) of systemic scleroderma that cause significant interference with either your day-to-day activities, your social functioning, or your ability to finish tasks in a normal amount of time, with at least two of the following:

  • fever
  • malaise (feeling unwell)
  • severe fatigue, or
  • involuntary weight loss.

What If My Scleroderma Doesn't Meet the Listing Requirements?

Even if you don't meet the listing requirements for systemic scleroderma, you might still qualify for disability benefits. The SSA will prepare a residual functional capacity assessment (RFC) that details any work-related limitations that stem from your illness. For example, if your scleroderma is localized to your legs, you may have developed atrophy and abnormal thickening of the underlying tissue. You may need a cane to walk, but this doesn't meet the listing. In this case, your RFC would likely state that you can stand only for short periods of time and walk only limited distances. Additionally, you would have to avoid jobs that require balance or that require you to climb ladders or stairs. In light of these restrictions, it would be difficult for you to perform most warehouse or industrial jobs, and your RFC might prevent you from performing any janitorial or construction work.

Here's another example. If you have developed scleroderma across the joints in your hands, your fine motor movement is probably significantly diminished. Your RFC might state that you're limited in your ability to perform jobs that require you to use your fingers on a frequent basis to sort objects or work with small parts, or perhaps to type or write. Most secretarial and many assembly line or sorting jobs would be eliminated from the available jobs that you could do.

The more types of limitations your medical records show, the fewer jobs you can do. That's why it's important for your doctor to record these limitations in your medical record. If you have enough limitations, the SSA will have to find that there are no jobs you can do. As part of figuring out what work you can do, the SSA will consider your prior job skills, education, and age. For more information on this assessment, see our section on how the SSA decides if you can work.

Basic Disability Requirements

To qualify for disability benefits, you can't earn more than about $1,300 per month from working. Also, your scleroderma must prevent you from being able to earn this amount for at least 12 months to meet Social Security's durational requirement. In addition, you have to meet the financial and legal criteria for either SSDI (Social Security disability) or SSI (Supplemental Security Income).

How Can I Apply for Disability Benefits?

An easy way to apply for Social Security disability benefits is to file your claim online at www.ssa.gov/applyfordisability. You can also file a claim over the phone by contacting Social Security at 800-772-1213, but be prepared for long wait times. For more information, please see our article about applying for Social Security disability benefits.

If you have questions or you'd like help with your application, click for a free case evaluation with a legal professional to determine if your scleroderma qualifies for benefits.

Updated December 3, 2021

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