Can I Get Disability Benefits for My Dyslexia?

Dyslexia alone rarely qualifies someone for disability benefits.

By , J.D., University of Missouri School of Law

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

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

In determining whether dyslexia is present, a doctor will consider a person's developmental and educational history, from grades to standardized test scores to reports from teachers and family members. Reading, writing, and psychological tests will often be given.

Can a Child Get Disability Benefits for Dyslexia?

In children's cases, Social Security will find a child disabled only when he or she meets Social Security's listing for "neurodevelopmental" disorders or when the child's impairment is considered functionally equivalent to the listings. This is a high standard and children's cases are notoriously tough to win. (See our article on getting disability for a learning disability to see how a child can meet the neurodevelopmental listing.) Note that children are eligible only for Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits, which is for low-income families. Children with a disability are not eligible for Social Security disability insurance (SSDI) benefits.

Can I Get Disability Benefits If I Have Dyslexia as an Adult?

An adult can get disability by either meeting a listing in Social Security's "Blue Book," its official list of disabling impairments, or by showing there are no jobs he or she can do. Dyslexia is now evaluated under Social Security's Blue Book Listing 12.11 for "neurodevelopmental disorders."

Listing for Developmental Disorders

Neurodevelopmental disorders begin in childhood, although sometimes they are not diagnosed until adulthood. They also include ADHD, learning disabilities, and tic disorders. The listing for neurodevelopmental disorders was added on January 27, 2017, so it applies to applications filed after that date.

The listing states that an individual must experience one of the following:

  • significant difficulties learning and using academic skills (including reading)
  • frequent distractibility, difficulty paying attention, and difficulty organizing tasks
  • hyperactive and impulsive behavior (for example, talking excessively, difficulty waiting, or appearing restless).
  • recurrent motor movement or vocalization.

Note that only the first point pertains to dyslexia; the other points are used to evaluate applicants with ADHD or tick disorders.

In addition to having one of the above criteria, a person would have to show an "extreme" limitation of one of the following, or a "marked" (severe) limitation in two of the following areas of mental functioning:

  • understanding, remembering, or applying information
  • interacting with others
  • concentration, persistence, or pace, or
  • adapting or managing oneself.

Again, only the first point above really applies to an applicant with dyslexia. To meet this requirement, a disability applicant must not be able to understand one- or two-step oral instructions and remember them long enough to follow them or must be unable to use information to perform work activities. It's unlikely that an applicant with dyslexia will be considered to have more than a mile or moderate limitation in this area. As the listing requirements above demonstrate, an individual would likely have to experience other significant impairments in addition to dyslexia in order to meet the listing's requirements.

Being Found Disabled Without Meeting the Developmental Listing

For a person to be considered disabled without meeting the above listing, he or she must be considered unable to perform any of his or her prior jobs or any other full-time job that exists in the U.S. because of a severe impairment. It is extraordinarily difficult, if not impossible, to receive disability benefits based solely on a diagnosis of dyslexia. That is because people with dyslexia, despite their struggles with reading and writing, are generally able to perform the vast majority of tasks related to performing full-time work. They are usually able to deal well with others, maintain focus and concentration, follow directions, and perform most other work-related tasks. Their symptoms are not the sort that would require them to miss work or take unscheduled breaks.

A person's chances of receiving disability benefits improve if he or she has another mental or physical impairment that, when combined with dyslexia, prevents full-time work. For example, if an applicant suffers from both ADHD and dyslexia, Social Security would consider the combined impact of both of those impairments, and the applicant would be likely to have multiple limitations. (For more on such a situation, see Attention Deficit Disorder & Social Security Disability.) For that reason, people filing for disability benefits should list all of their physical and mental impairments, not just the most important or the most severe.

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 SSA's grid rules, those who are illiterate and suffer from an additional physical impairment may be eligible for benefits, assuming all of the following conditions are satisfied:

  • The applicant must be at least 45 years old.
  • The applicant's past jobs must have been "unskilled", and
  • The applicant's RFC must limit him or her to "sedentary" work due to a severe physical impairment.

For illiterate people over 50, their physical impairment must limit them to at least "light" work, again with a work history of unskilled work. (For more on the difference between sedentary and light work, see our article distinguishing light and sedentary work.)

How Can I Prove the Severity of My Impairments?

Those who have dyslexia and other impairments will want to obtain the opinion of a psychologist, psychiatrist, or other doctor. If a doctor is willing to fill out a Residual Functional Capacity (RFC) form or write a letter on your behalf, it really can make the difference in a Social Security case. The form or letter should state your diagnoses and discuss what work-related (or school-related) limitations are caused by your medical problems. For physical impairments, your doctor should address your ability to sit, stand, walk, lift, push, pull, and stoop. For mental or psychological 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.

Learn more about getting disability benefits without meeting a Blue Book listing.

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