Can I Get Disability Benefits for My Dyslexia?

Dyslexia alone usually won't qualify for benefits, unless it's accompanied by another disorder.

By , J.D. · University of Missouri School of Law
Updated by Diana Chaikin, Attorney · Seattle University School of Law

Dyslexia is a type of learning disability that causes problems with reading, writing, and occasionally speaking. It's the most common learning disability among children, and its symptoms, especially if left untreated, often persist into adulthood.

When dyslexia is diagnosed early, treatment is often successfully tailored to a child's needs, and the child is able to reach developmental and academic milestones. But some children—particularly those with other learning disabilities—might fall behind other children their age, sometimes significantly. In these cases, a child might qualify for disability benefits through the Social Security Administration (SSA).

Symptoms and Signs of Dyslexia

Dyslexia is often portrayed in popular media as causing somebody to read words "backwards" or mix up letters, but the disorder actually covers a wide array of reading-related difficulties, including the following:

  • problems sounding out words
  • difficulty learning new words
  • slow reading or reading below one's grade level
  • problems comprehending what one has read, and
  • trouble detecting the differences between letters and words.

Dyslexia isn't associated with below-average intelligence, and people with dyslexia generally don't have any problems socializing or interacting with others—although severe dyslexia can have a negative impact on self-esteem or motivation. Dyslexic children have a higher risk of attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), which can result in behavioral problems at school.

Pediatricians diagnose dyslexia in children by reviewing their developmental and educational history, including grades, standardized test scores, and teachers' reports. Both children and adults are typically given reading, writing, and other cognitive tests before doctors will make a diagnosis of dyslexia.

Can a Child Get Disability Benefits for Dyslexia?

Social Security will award Supplemental Security Income (SSI) disability benefits to children with dyslexia who either:

  • meet a "listed impairment" for a mental or neurocognitive disorder, or
  • have limitations that are "functionally equivalent to" (as severe as) limitations required in the impairment listings.

Listed impairments are conditions that Social Security considers automatically disabling. To qualify for disability by meeting a listing, your child's medical record will need to contain certain information—such as test results from a neurological examination—that show significant limitations in your child's functioning.

For example, for your child to meet listing 112.11 for neurodevelopmental disorders, you'll need to provide Social Security with both of the following:

  • medical documentation showing distractible, disorganized behavior or hyperactive and impulsive behavior; significant academic difficulties; or recurrent motor movement or vocalization ("tics"), and
  • evidence that these behavioral abnormalities result in an extreme limitation in one (or a marked limitation in two) areas of mental functioning, including understanding instructions, interacting with others, finishing tasks, and managing behavior.

Listing requirements are notoriously difficult to meet. But even children who don't qualify for benefits under a listing can still get disability if their medical records establish functional equivalence to the listed impairments.

Can I Get Disability Benefits for Dyslexia as an Adult?

Adults can also get disability by meeting a listed impairment. The medical criteria needed to meet adult listings are similar—and in some cases, identical—to the requirements for children's listings. Adults also have a version of functional equivalence known as "equaling a listing." Unlike children, however, adults can also qualify for benefits by showing they can't do any full-time work.

Listed Impairments and Dyslexia

Because dyslexia isn't usually considered disabling on its own, Social Security doesn't have a separate listing for the disorder. However, in severe cases, the agency may evaluate an adult disability application for dyslexia under listing 12.11 for neurodevelopmental disorders. (The requirements for adults under listing 12.11 are the same as those for children under listing 112.11.)

Depending on what your medical records as a whole show, the agency may also look at listing 12.02 for neurocognitive disorders. For you to meet listing 12.02, your medical record must contain medical documentation of a significant cognitive decline (loss of mental functioning) in one or more of the following areas:

  • complex attention (the ability to divide your focus or "multitask")
  • executive functioning (such as making plans and solving problems)
  • learning and memory (remembering and following instructions)
  • language (spoken and written)
  • perceptual-motor (hand-eye coordination), or
  • social cognition ("reading the room").

You'll also need to demonstrate that the cognitive decline results in an extreme limitation of one, or a marked limitation of two, areas of mental functioning, including the ability to apply information, interact with others, maintain focus, and regulate behavior.

Some people who are able to function well in a highly structured environment would meet the listing criteria if they were removed from that environment. If you can only function as well as you do because you get a lot of help, you can still meet listing 12.02 if you can show that you're marginally adjusted to independent living.

Dyslexia and Your Residual Functional Capacity

It's unlikely that most applicants who list dyslexia as their only severe impairment are going to have more than a mild or moderate limitation in mental functioning—meaning they won't qualify for benefits by meeting a listing. But limitations from dyslexia can, when combined with other impairments, result in a restrictive residual functional capacity (RFC) that rules out all work.

Your RFC is a set of limitations on the type of job tasks you can perform. Social Security reviews your medical records and daily activities to determine what you can and can't be expected to do at work. Somebody with dyslexia might not be able to review complex instructions in a fast-paced environment, for example, but could perform one- or two-step oral tasks without difficulty.

Social Security uses your RFC to determine whether you can return to your past work and, if not, whether other jobs exist that you can do. Generally, you'll need to show that, despite struggling with reading and writing, you can't perform even basic tasks (such as placing a button in a box) on a full-time basis—a hard standard to prove. You can improve your odds by letting Social Security know of any other medical conditions, physical or mental, that would cause you to miss work, take unscheduled breaks, or lose concentration.

Dyslexia, Illiteracy, and Social Security's Grid Rules

Occasionally, people with severe cases of dyslexia may be unable to read or write at all. According to Social Security's grid rules, applicants who are illiterate may be eligible for benefits provided they meet all the following criteria:

  • they have a physical condition that restricts them to sedentary (sit-down) work
  • they're at least 45 years old, and
  • all their past jobs have been unskilled or they don't have a relevant work history.

People over 50 who are illiterate can qualify under the grid rules if their physical condition limits them to light work with the same vocational profile (a history of unskilled jobs or no past work). You can learn more in our article on the differences between light and sedentary work.

Proving Limitations From Dyslexia and Other Impairments

One of the best methods disability applicants have at their disposal is getting a medical opinion from a treating doctor. Social Security values the opinions of psychologists and physicians with whom you have a regular relationship, and who have special insight into your symptoms and limitations.

If a doctor is willing to fill out an RFC form or write a letter on your behalf, it really can make the difference in your disability case. The doctor should state your diagnoses and discuss what work-related (or school-related, for child applicants) limitations are caused by your medical problems.

For example, your doctor should address how any physical impairments limit your ability to sit, stand, walk, lift, push, pull, and stoop. Likewise, for mental impairments, your doctor should discuss your ability to follow simple and complex instructions, interact with supervisors and the public, maintain adequate attendance, and work without unscheduled breaks. Reports from third parties, including friends, teachers, counselors, and family members, may also prove helpful in demonstrating the severity of your condition.

How to Apply for Disability Benefits

Applying for Social Security benefits for dyslexia is a straightforward process. You can file your application in one of four ways:

  • online through Social Security's website.
  • over the phone at 888-772-1213, between 8 a.m. and 7 p.m., Monday through Friday. (If you're deaf or hard of hearing, you can call the TTY number at 800-325-0778.)
  • in person at your local Social Security field office, or
  • by hiring an attorney or representative to file your application for you.

You can increase your chances of winning your disability case by hiring a qualified attorney who can help guide you through the process. Your lawyer can make sure you obtain and submit all the necessary medical evidence, handle communication with Social Security, and represent you at a disability hearing.

Updated December 5, 2023

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