Applying for Disability at Age 50-54 With Social Security's Medical-Vocational Grids

If you have an RFC for sedentary work and you are between the ages of 50-54, you could be approved for disability benefits.

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If you're applying for disability and you're between the ages of 50-54, the Social Security Administration (SSA) can make it easier for you to get benefits due to a special set of rules known as the medical-vocational grid rules ("the grid" for short). The grid rules exist to help certain workers who might not be able to retrain for a new job before full retirement age.

When reviewing your disability application, if the SSA decides your medical conditions don't meet a disability listing and you can't do your past job, the agency will refer to the grid to decide if you're disabled. Social Security looks at factors such as your age, education, training, and physical limitations to determine whether there are any other jobs that you could do.

Using the grid rules is just one way to qualify for benefits if you're 50-54 years old. You can still be approved for benefits even if you don't have what the SSA calls a "directed finding of disability" according to the grid.

What Rules Do Disability Claimants Age 50-54 Need to Know?

Social Security places disability applicants (claimants) into categories based on age. Adults under the age of 50 are categorized as "younger individuals" and have to show that they can't do even the easiest jobs before the SSA can find them disabled. Claimants aged 50-54 are categorized as "closely approaching advanced age" and can sometimes be found disabled even when they can perform the least demanding type of work.

If you're closely approaching advanced age, the SSA will review your vocational history and residual functional capacity to see if the grid rules "direct" a finding of disability. A directed finding means that the SSA doesn't have any leeway or discretion—the agency must find you disabled.

Vocational Factors Used by the Grid Rules

To determine whether the grid rules direct a finding of disability, the SSA will look at the following:

  • your level of education—whether you graduated high school, obtained a GED, or completed specialized training such as trade school ("votech")
  • whether your past jobs were skilled, semi-skilled, or unskilled, and
  • whether any skills you gained at your past jobs are transferable to other work.

The grid is divided by age group and exertional level. The exertional level is part of your residual functional capacity (RFC), which is the maximum amount of physical activity that Social Security thinks you can do in a work setting.

Social Security's Exertional Levels

The SSA has five exertional levels, which are defined mainly by how much weight you can lift and carry, as well as the number of hours you can sit, stand, and walk. The different exertional levels are as follows:

  • Sedentary work. You can lift up to 10 pounds occasionally and 5 pounds frequently, and you can sit for 6 hours out of an 8-hour workday.
  • Light work. You can lift up to 20 pounds occasionally and 10 pounds frequently, and you can stand and walk for up to 6 hours out of an 8-hour workday.
  • Medium work. You can lift up to 50 pounds occasionally, and you can stand and walk for up to 6 hours out of an 8-hour workday.
  • Heavy work. You can lift up to 100 pounds occasionally and 50 pounds frequently, and you can stand and walk for up to 6 hours out of an 8-hour workday.
  • Very heavy work. You can lift more than 100 pounds occasionally and 50 pounds frequently, and you can stand and walk for up to 6 hours out of an 8-hour workday.

Using the Grid Rules to Get Disability

Below are the grid rules for people between the age of 50 and 54. To see how the SSA would decide your case based on the grids, first find the table for your RFC level. Next, find the row that describes your education level and previous work experience. The third column shows the decision the SSA will make based on those two factors.

RFC for Sedentary Work

Education Skill Level Decision
Completed 11 grade or less Unskilled work or no work Disabled
Completed 11 grade or less Skilled or semiskilled work but skills are not transferable Disabled
Completed 11 grade or less Skilled or semiskilled work with transferable skills Not disabled
High school graduate (or GED) or higher Unskilled work or no work Disabled
High school graduate (or GED) or higher Skilled or semiskilled work but skills are not transferable Disabled
High school graduate (or GED) or higher Skilled or semiskilled work with transferable skills Not disabled
Recent education that provides for direct entry into skilled work (high school graduate or more) Unskilled work or no work Not disabled
Recent education that provides for direct entry into skilled work (high school graduate or more) Skilled or semiskilled work, whether skills are transferable or not Not disabled

RFC for Light Work

Education Skill Level Decision
Illiterate Unskilled work or no work Disabled
Completed 11 grade or less Unskilled work or no work Not disabled
Completed 11 grade or less Skilled or semiskilled work but skills not transferable Not disabled
Completed 11 grade or less Skilled or semiskilled work with transferable skills Not disabled
High school graduate or higher Unskilled work or no work Not disabled
High school graduate or higher Skilled or semiskilled work but skills not transferable Not disabled
High school graduate or higher Skilled or semiskilled work with transferable skills Not disabled

RFC for Medium Work

Education Skill Level Decision
Completed 11 grade or less Unskilled work or no work Not disabled
Completed 11 grade or less Skilled or semiskilled work but skills not transferable Not disabled
Completed 11 grade or less Skilled or semiskilled work with transferable skills Not disabled
High school graduate or higher Unskilled work or no work Not disabled
High school graduate or higher Skilled or semiskilled work but skills not transferable Not disabled
High school graduate or higher Skilled or semiskilled work with transferable skills Not disabled
Recent education that provides for direct entry into skilled work (high school graduate or higher) Skilled or semiskilled work whether or not skills are transferable Not disabled

Getting Disability With an RFC for Heavy or Very Heavy Work

If Social Security thinks you're able to perform the physically demanding jobs classified as heavy or very heavy work, you won't be able to get disability based on the grid rules, and it's unlikely that you'll be found disabled based only on exertional restrictions (limits on your ability to walk or stand and to lift and carry weight). You'll need to show the SSA that you have other non-exertional limitations that are preventing you from working.

Non-exertional limitations aren't restrictions on how much weight you can lift or how long you can be on your feet, but can still affect the types of jobs you can perform. Examples of non-exertional restrictions include:

  • not using your arms and hands to reach and grasp objects (manipulative limitations)
  • avoiding excessive bending, stooping, crouching or crawling (postural limitations)
  • reduction in the ability to see, speak, or hear (visual and communicative limitations)
  • avoiding extreme temperatures, loud noises, or dust (environmental limitations), and
  • interacting occasionally with the public or being off-task (mental limitations).

Whether Social Security finds you disabled depends on how many jobs you can't do due to your non-exertional limitations. If you can do heavy work but need to avoid heights, fumes, and moving machinery, the SSA is unlikely to find you disabled because there are many less demanding jobs that don't require you to work in such an environment.

But if your non-exertional limitations are significant enough, the agency can find that no jobs exist that you could do within your restrictions. For example, if you frequently drop small objects due to carpal tunnel syndrome or you can't concentrate for long enough to follow even simple instructions at work, the SSA will likely find that you'd be unable to work at any job.

For more information, see our articles on mental limitations and non-exertional impairments.

Examples of Using the Grid for Ages 50-54

Here are some examples of when a person aged 50-54 can be approved for disability benefits based on the grid:

  • Elena is a 53-year-old chef with a high school education. Elena applied for disability benefits due to diabetic neuropathy in her feet that made it difficult to do her job, which required her to stand for hours at a time. The SSA determined that Elena was physically capable of performing sedentary work, but that she couldn't use her skills as a chef to do a sit-down job. Using the grid rules, which direct a finding of disability with a sedentary RFC and no transferable skills, the SSA approved Elena's application.
  • Logan is a 52-year-old strawberry picker who is unable to read or write. Logan applied for disability based on heart disease and high blood pressure. The SSA reviewed Logan's medical evidence and determined that he had an RFC for light work, but that his past work didn't provide him with any skills. Using the grid rules, which direct a finding of disability for an illiterate claimant with a light RFC and unskilled past work, the SSA approved Logan's application.

But even for a claimant aged 50-54, the grid can direct a finding of not disabled:

  • Vince is a 50-year-old dental hygienist who filed for disability due to arthritis in his shoulders. Vince has a college degree and spent half his time at work on administrative duties such as entering data. The SSA determined that Vince had an RFC for sedentary work, but that he had skills from his past work that included typing, filing, and organizing information. Using the grid rules, which direct a finding of not disabled for a high school graduate with transferable skills, the SSA found that Vince wasn't disabled because he could use what he learned at a sit-down job.
  • Claire is a 51-year-old electrician who filed for disability based on migraines and asthma. Claire had some mild side effects from her medications that made it difficult for her to concentrate on complex diagrams and lift heavy tools, but her symptoms were otherwise well controlled. The SSA determined that Claire had an RFC to perform medium work. Because the grid directs a finding of not disabled at a medium RFC for applicants age 50-54, Claire's application was denied.

Qualifying for Benefits When the Grid Rules Don't Apply

Social Security can still award you benefits even if you wouldn't be found disabled under the grid rules. Here are a few examples.

Less than sedentary RFC. If the SSA gives you a sedentary RFC but you can show that you can't do even a sit-down job on a full-time basis—you might be missing too many days of work due to pain, or you can't focus long enough to finish tasks because of anxiety—the agency will find you disabled with an RFC for less than sedentary work.

Worn-out worker rule. A few claimants may be awarded disability benefits under what Social Security calls (somewhat indelicately) the "worn-out worker" rule. To qualify under this rule, you must:

  • have less than a 6th-grade education
  • have worked at least 35 years in arduous (extremely physical) unskilled labor, and
  • your health prevents you from doing this kind of job anymore.

Not many applicants are awarded benefits under this rule, but if you think you might qualify, see our article on the "worn-out worker rule".

Borderline age rule. Another rule known as the "borderline age rule" can help if you're within a few months of qualifying for disability benefits based on the grid rules for an older age category. For example, a claimant with an RFC for light work, a high school education, and no transferable skills won't be found disabled using the grid rules for ages 50-54. But at age 55, the same claimant would be awarded benefits using the "advanced age" category.

Contact an Attorney to Help Strengthen Your Claim

The grid rules can be a useful tool to win a disability claim for people between the ages of 50-54, but understanding the nuances of how Social Security uses the grid can be confusing. Consider contacting an experienced disability attorney or advocate who can help you understand what Social Security needs to see before the agency can find you disabled according to the grid.

To find an attorney in your area, visit our disability attorney locator tool.

Updated August 8, 2022

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