Winning a claim for disability becomes easier the older you get. The Social Security Administration (SSA) acknowledges the fact that transitioning successfully to a new workplace or field (making a "vocational adjustment") is more difficult for older workers than for younger workers.
The SSA has a set of guidelines known as the "medical-vocational grid" that takes certain work-related factors into consideration to help determine whether claimants (applicants) over the age of 50 are disabled. If you're over 50, knowing what factors the SSA looks at can help you win your claim for benefits.
Social Security doesn't expect people who are getting close to full retirement age to switch careers or start over at the bottom of the career ladder. The grid rules are a way for the SSA to find disability applicants over the age of 50 disabled even if they might be able to perform other work.
The grid takes into account the following factors:
Below is a more in-depth look into these factors and how the SSA applies them in the grid.
Social Security classifies disability applicants according to how old they are. The agency has four age categories for adult applicants:
The older you are, the more likely you are to be found disabled according to the grid. Most younger individuals won't be able to use the grid rules to qualify for benefits.
The SSA divides educational levels into the following categories for the purpose of the grid:
Social Security refers to the last category as "education providing direct entry into skilled work." When applying the grid rules, this category doesn't come up often, but it can trip up claimants who have gotten training for a specific career within the past five years.
Social Security will classify your past work according to skill level. Skill level is mostly determined by how long it takes to learn how to do the job and how complicated the job tasks are. The three skill levels the agency recognizes are:
Skilled jobs involve following complex instructions (such as a blueprint), working closely with others, and using abstract thinking. These jobs usually require at least one year of training or education. Examples include plumbers, administrative assistants, and real estate agents.
Semi-skilled jobs involve detailed—but not complex—instructions. These jobs can be learned in a few months, and they tend to require manual dexterity and coordination. Examples include servers, cashiers, and security guards.
Unskilled jobs involve simple, routine, and repetitive tasks. These jobs can be learned in one month or less. They can be easy, or very physically demanding. Examples include farm laborers, small parts assemblers, and laundry room attendants.
If your past work experience was skilled or semi-skilled, the SSA will want to see if you can use any of those skills at a different job. Skills that you learned at one job that you can use in another are called transferable skills.
Examples of transferable skills include:
Some skills are so tied to the physical nature of the job where you learned them that you can't use them to do a different type of work. Social Security considers these skills to be "not transferable." Depending on your residual functional capacity, not having transferable skills can be enough for the agency to find you disabled.
Your RFC is Social Security's determination of the most you can do, physically and mentally, in a work setting. The RFC assessment will frequently contain restrictions on how much weight you can lift and how long you can be on your feet for. The SSA refers to these restrictions as your exertional level. The five exertional levels are defined below.
Most disability applicants are assigned sedentary, light, or medium RFCs. There is a different grid, with different rules, for each of these RFC levels.
Your RFC might also contain non-exertional limitations you have that affect the types of jobs you can perform. Examples of non-exertional limitations include restrictions on how long you can use your hands to grasp objects, or whether you can interact with the general public.
To see how the SSA might decide your case, first find the table for your age group under the exertional level of your RFC. 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.
For example, if you're between the ages of 55-59 and have an RFC for sedentary work, below are the first few rows of the grid rules that could apply.
|Previous Work Experience
|Limited or less
|Unskilled or none
|Limited or less
|Skills that are not transferable
|Limited or less
|Skills that are transferable
If you have an 8th-grade ("limited") education and your past jobs were all unskilled, Social Security will find you disabled.
To see all of the grid rules, refer to our articles on the grid for your age group. If you're within six months of the next age group, you might want to read the article for that age group as well.
If Social Security thinks you have the residual functional capacity to perform the strenuous demands of heavy or very heavy work, you won't be able to use the grid rules to get disability benefits. You'll have to show that you have non-exertional limitations that prevent you from working jobs at any exertional level.
Even if the grid rules don't call for a finding of disability, you can still qualify for benefits if you can show that no jobs exist that you can do despite your limitations. (This is the most common way that the SSA awards benefits to people under the age of 50.)
Here are several ways for you to show the agency that you can't do any jobs:
The grid rules can frequently help older people win their disability claims, but understanding the nuances of how Social Security uses the grid can be confusing. An experienced disability representative can help determine where you fall within the grid and what your options are.