Does Borderline Intellectual Functioning Qualify Someone for Disability Benefits?

Disability applicants with IQs between 71 and 84 can qualify for disability benefits, especially if they have other impairments.

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

Borderline intellectual functioning is a cognitive impairment that applies to people who have lower than average intelligence but don't have what Social Security calls intellectual disorder—a severe intellectual disability, formerly known as mental retardation.

People with borderline intellectual functioning typically have difficulties with learning, reasoning, planning, abstract thinking, and judgment. Lower than average intellectual functioning can be caused by birth injury, infections, genetics, fetal alcohol syndrome, or environmental exposure to toxins such as lead.

When Does Low IQ Qualify for Disability Benefits?

Borderline intellectual functioning is diagnosed by IQ test scores that are between 71 and 84. People with scores that fall within that range may qualify for disability benefits under Social Security's "Blue Book" listing 12.11 for neurodevelopmental disorders.

How Can You Meet the Listing for Borderline Intellectual Functioning?

In order to qualify for disability for borderline intellectual functioning under listing 12.11, you must provide medical evidence showing one or more of the following symptoms:

  • significant difficulties learning and using academic skills
  • frequent distractibility, difficulty sustaining attention or organizing tasks, or hyperactivity, or
  • recurrent motor movement or vocalizations ("tics").

If you have borderline intellectual functioning, you would probably meet the first item above, "difficulties learning and using academic skills," but you need to document your limitations with objective data like school reports, work evaluations, and I.Q. test results showing an I.Q. of less than 85.

You'll also need to show that your symptoms cause you to have an "extreme" limitation in one, or a "marked" limitation in two, of the following areas:

  • understanding or using information (the ability to learn terms and procedures, understand instructions, answer questions, and provide explanations)
  • managing oneself (the ability to regulate emotions, control behavior, be aware of risks, and avoid dangerous situations)
  • concentrating on tasks and maintaining pace (the ability to start and finish tasks in a timely manner), and
  • interacting with others (the ability to ask for help when needed and keep social interactions free of excessive irritability or sensitivity).

Extreme limitations are more severe than "marked" (severe) limitations, and generally apply to people with an IQ of 70 or below—which isn't considered borderline intellectual functioning.

Many applicants can show that their borderline intellectual functioning causes a marked limitation in learning and understanding, but it can be harder to establish a marked limitation in a second area. You can help Social Security better understand how severe your limitations are if you can get your doctor to provide a medical source statement describing the ways that you meet the listing requirements.

What if You Don't Meet the Listing for Neurodevelopmental Disorders?

If you don't meet the listing because you have only mild or moderate limitations in mental functioning, you can still win benefits by proving that your impairments make it impossible to find full-time work. Applicants with borderline intellectual functioning in combination with other mental or physical impairments have a better chance of showing they can't work than applicants who have borderline intellectual functioning as their only impairment.

Your Mental Residual Functional Capacity

If a disability applicant doesn't meet the requirements of a listing, Social Security will review their medical record for evidence of mental limitations to assess their "mental residual functional capacity" (RFC). A mental RFC is a set of restrictions on the ability to work in the following areas:

  • Following instructions. You have a limitation in this area if you struggle to understand, remember, and carry out detailed instructions. You might need tasks to be broken into individual steps that can be completed one at a time, rather than being given a series of instructions that must be remembered and followed, one after another.
  • Supervision and training. Some people with borderline intellectual functioning may need close supervision or an extended training period.
  • Concentration. If you struggle with concentration and focus, you could be restricted from jobs that require multitasking. Many people with borderline intellectual functioning are limited to jobs that involve simple, routine tasks.
  • Pace. You have a limitation in pace or performance if you need extra time to complete job tasks.
  • Judgment. Some people with borderline intellectual functioning struggle with reasoning ability, resulting in limitations on their ability to make work-related decisions.
  • Social functioning. If you have difficulties communicating with others and understanding social cues, you might be unsuited to jobs dealing with customers, and your RFC will contain a limitation in contact with the general public or coworkers.

Applicants who have additional physical restrictions in addition to borderline intellectual functioning will have those restrictions reflected in a physical RFC.

Your Physical Residual Functional Capacity

A physical RFC will contain strength-related restrictions on the types of jobs you can do using what's called exertional levels.

  • Sedentary work. This limitation restricts you from lifting more than ten pounds at a time, and means you can do jobs with occasional lifting or carrying things like files or small tools. Sedentary jobs are mostly sitting, but you must be able to walk and stand for at least two hours out of an eight-hour workday.
  • Light work. A restriction to light work means you can do jobs requiring you to lift up to 20 pounds occasionally, and frequently lift or carry up to ten pounds. Light work requires frequent walking and standing and the ability to push and pull with your arms or legs.
  • Medium work. Being able to perform medium work means that you can lift up to 50 pounds at a time, and frequently lift or carry up to 25 pounds. If you can do medium work, SSA will determine that you can also do light and sedentary work as well.
  • Heavy work. This level means you can lift up to 100 pounds at a time and can frequently lift or carry up to 50 pounds. If you can do heavy work, SSA will determine that you can also do medium, light, and sedentary work as well.

Your exertional level is the bulk of your physical RFC—and a key factor in determining whether you're awarded disability under the medical-vocational grid rules. But most people who are found disabled are able to rule out all work due to a combination of their exertional level and other, non-strength-related restrictions called non-exertional limitations. If your exertional, non-exertional, and mental limitations keep you from performing your past work or any other jobs, Social Security will find that you're disabled.

Evidence Needed to Apply for Borderline Intellectual Functioning

Social Security will look at school records, testimony from teachers or supervisors, and doctors' notes when evaluating disability for borderline intellectual functioning. For example, evidence of difficulties with concentration may be found in work evaluations that show frequent errors.

In addition, applicants should submit their IQ test scores to Social Security, making sure to include information about the standard deviation of the IQ test that was used. The standard deviation could indicate that test scores tend to be high and may not fully reflect the applicant's disability.

If you need help determining which evidence you should submit with your (or your child's) application for disability, consider hiring an experienced disability attorney. A lawyer can handle communications with the Social Security Administration, represent you at a hearing in front of an administrative law judge, and increase your chances of getting benefits.

Updated July 21, 2023

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