When you file for disability, the Social Security Administration (SSA) requires you to have a severe impairment that prevents you from doing your past job or any less demanding work. If your impairments aren't considered severe (for instance, you have an allergy to photo-processing chemicals), normally you would be denied disability benefits early on in the process. But if your non-severe impairments prevent you from doing any of your past jobs because of a "unique feature" of the job (for instance, working at a photo-development center with photo-processing chemicals), Social Security has to agree that you can't do your past work and must determine whether there is other work you could adjust to.
Jobs that require intense focus and concentration, such as air-traffic controller, tractor-trailer driver, or heavy machinery operator positions, can be significantly affected by non-severe impairments, such as moderate depression or anxiety. While psychological problems are most often brought up in conjunction with the inability to perform the unique features of a job, environmental limitations can prevent an individual from performing the unique features of a job as well. Non-severe limitations can include allergies, sun sensitivity, sensitivity to hot and cold temperatures, and sensitivity to dust and fumes.
To help you understand the significance of the unique features strategy, let's look at the five-step analysis that the SSA uses to determine whether or not you are disabled. The analysis is based on the following questions.
Claimants (disability applicants) are sometimes denied at step two because the SSA finds that their impairments aren't severe. A severe impairment is one that has more than a minimal effect on the claimant’s ability to perform basic work activities.
Occasionally, a claimant’s past work includes “unique features” that he or she can no longer do because of the non-severe impairment. In this case, the SSA cannot deny the claim at step two but must continue the evaluation by doing an "RFC" analysis.
The advantage of being found not able to do your past work because of unique features could get you to step five of the evaluation process. If you are older, have little education, and few transferable job skills, you have a better chance of being approved at step five, particularly if you have another physical or mental impairment that is severe enough to limit your functioning. (For more information, see our article on combining severe and non-severe impairments to get disability.)
Your RFC is your "residual functional capacity" -- an assessment of what you can and cannot do. If your past work has unique features and you have a non-severe impairment, the SSA will prepare an RFC assessment for you. The RFC details how your impairment affects your ability to do certain mental and physical work-related activities. Examples of work-related activities that an RFC may discuss are the ability to:
The RFC will also include any sensory or environmental limitations you have, such as issues with seeing and hearing, allergies, and sensitivity to hot and cold temperatures.
To determine whether you can do a particular job, the SSA must do a function-by-function comparison between the limitations in your RFC and the requirements of the job. You can learn more about the significance of RFCs by reading our article on RFCs.
As discussed above, if you can show that your job had some “unique requirements” that you can no longer do because of your non-severe impairment, the SSA does an RFC analysis and comparison.
For example, in one case, a claimant’s past work was primarily as a sound engineer. The unique requirements of his job included the ability to tell the differences between sounds and how they varied in pitch and loudness. The claimant suffered a head injury that resulted in chronic but mild tinnitus, a condition that causes loud and chronic ringing in the ears. Although the SSA determined that his tinnitus was a non-severe impairment, the claimant's attorney was able to demonstrate that his past work included “unique requirements” that he could no longer do because of the tinnitus. Given this, the SSA was required to continue with the disability analysis instead of denying him at step two.
In another case, a claimant developed a mild tremor in her hands and arms. She was diagnosed with an “essential tremor.” Because of her mild symptoms, the SSA determined that her impairment was not severe. Normally, the analysis would end at this point and the claim would be denied. However, the claimant’s past work was as an electric engineer technician. One “unique requirement” of her job was the ability to assemble very small objects and to precisely coordinate the movement of her hands. Even though her tremors were minor, she could no longer perform these aspects of her job; accordingly, the SSA could not deny the claim at step two and had to go on with the analysis.
In another case, a claimant's past work was as a crane operator on a construction site. The claimant's primary impairment was emphysema, but he also suffered from moderate depression and anxiety. Social Security found that the claimant could still do his past work despite his emphysema. At his hearing, the claimant raised the point that he takes an anti-anxiety medication that has the documented side effect of intense drowsiness (and his medical records indicated that other medications were ineffective). The claimant testified that drowsiness and anxiety impaired his ability to make decisions and that as a result he made improper judgments while operating the crane. After being asked on cross-examination whether the claimant could perform his past work if the effects of the moderate anxiety and anxiety medication impair his judgment and decision-making ability, the vocational expert agreed he could not.
Even if the SSA decides not to deny your claim based on the “unique requirements” rule, you will still have to prove that there is no other work you can do. The process for deciding whether you can do other work includes more than doing a comparison of your RFC and the job requirements. The SSA will also look at your age, education, and past job skills to see what other jobs you can do. However, unless you can use the medical-vocational "grids" because a physical impairment prevents you from doing heavy work, it will be an uphill battle to prove there are no jobs in the United States that you can do.
During a disability hearing, you can challenge the jobs that a vocational expert proposes you can do, based on your limitations. You or your attorney can question the VE about each proposed job as to the specific physical and mental skills and tasks required by each position to determine whether there are any features that your impairment prevents you from doing.
Your attorney should have access to the Dictionary of Occupational Titles (DOT), which describes every job in the U.S. in detail, including each job's physical, mental, and educational requirements. A disability attorney can use the DOT to identify potential unique requirements that would be affected by a non-severe physical condition like allergies or environmental limitations or a non-severe mental illness like moderate depression or anxiety.
For example, the following positions have requirements that can be affected by even moderate depression or anxiety.
Your attorney can question the VE as to how the documented limitations and side effects of your illness affect the ability to perform the functions of each proposed job. Your goal is to have the VE testify that because of your non-severe condition, you couldn't do any of the proposed jobs. But if the judge finds that you can do any other job, you will be denied disability benefits.
Proving you can't do a job with unique features because of your non-severe impairment is not an easy thing to do. And even if you get past step two of the disability analysis based on the “unique requirements” rule, winning your claim with only a non-severe impairment will be difficult. You should contact an experienced disability attorney to discuss how best to handle your case. To find an attorney in your area, use our disability attorney finder.