Social Security disability benefits are available for profound hearing loss or deafness, but not for moderate or mild hearing loss. The Social Security Administration (SSA) details how significant your hearing loss must be to qualify for SSDI (Social Security Disability Insurance) or SSI (Supplemental Security Income) disability benefits.
Social Security regularly grants disability for deafness and profound hearing loss. And the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) counts deafness and hearing loss as disabilities, meaning that employers need to make reasonable accommodations for employees who are deaf or have severe hearing loss.
Profound and severe hearing loss can qualify for disability. Social Security assesses hearing loss in two ways: with its listing of impairments, which sets out test results you need to have to be disabled, and by judging whether there are any jobs you can do with limited hearing.
The SSA's impairment listing 2.10 states the requirements for automatically getting disability benefits for hearing loss. To qualify for disability benefits for hearing loss (without cochlear implants), you must meet either one of the two following tests.
Pure tone air conduction and bone conduction audiometry. Your average hearing threshold sensitivity for air conduction must be 90 decibels (dB) or worse in your better ear, and you must have a bone conduction hearing threshold of 60 dB or worse in your better ear. Your hearing loss needs to be calculated by averaging your hearing at the sound frequencies of 500 hertz (Hz), 1,000 Hz, and 2,000 Hz.
Word recognition test. You must not be able to repeat more than 40% of a list of standardized words spoken in a word recognition test (which tests speech discrimination).
You must be given the pure tone, bone conduction, and word recognition tests by:
All testing should be done without hearing aids.
In addition to the hearing tests, the audiologist or ENT, or another medical doctor, must examine your ears and write up an "otologic exam report" with a description of your external ear canals and tympanic membranes, along with any middle ear abnormalities.
If the SSA suspects your hearing is not as bad as your pure tone audiometry tests indicate, the agency could send you to an audiologist for auditory evoked response testing (which measures brainwave responses to tones). The SSA might send you for additional testing if your bone conduction test results are inconsistent with your pure-tone test results.
If you have cochlear implants in one or both ears, the SSA uses a different listing to determine disability, listing 2.11. Social Security will automatically grant you disability benefits for one year after the cochlear implantation (whether or not your hearing improves within 12 months).
After one year, Social Security will terminate your disability benefits unless your word recognition is still poor for words spoken at 60 dB. If your word recognition on any version of the "Hearing in Noise Test" (HINT) is 60% or less, with your implant adjusted to normal settings, Social Security will continue to recognize your hearing loss as a disability.
Many people are hard of hearing but don't meet the SSA's disability listing for profound hearing loss, which is very difficult to meet. You can still get disability benefits if you can show that there are no jobs you can do with your amount of hearing loss.
Social Security will first confirm that you can't continue to do your past work, and, next, will decide whether there is any other kind of work you can do. The SSA will consider how your hearing loss affects your capacity to communicate, follow instructions, and do various jobs. Here's how the SSA might treat various levels of hearing loss.
40 dB or higher. If your average pure tone threshold is higher than 40 dB in your better ear, Social Security should give you an "RFC." RFC stands for "residual functional capacity," a rating of the type of work you can do. In your RFC, the SSA will include hearing-related restrictions on the work you can do. Social Security usually considers thresholds less than 40dB as mild, and won't prepare an RFC.
50 dB or higher. If your hearing loss is moderate (for example, your average threshold is 50 dB, and your word recognition scores are 60% or less), you probably have difficulty hearing and following directions. This could rule out some types of jobs, including work in a noisy environment or jobs where instructions can't be given in writing.
70 dB or higher. If your hearing loss is severe (for instance, if your average hearing threshold sensitivity is 70 dB or worse, in your better ear), you can't do work that requires good hearing and good word recognition. This would rule out work that requires communicating with the public over the telephone or radio, or jobs that require the operation of hazardous machinery.
In some cases, the SSA could probably still find jobs you could do where hearing isn't important. But if you don't have the job skills or education to do those jobs, you might be able to get disability benefits based on a "medical-vocational allowance," especially if you're 55 or older.
The SSA will still want to see various audiometry tests in your medical records, including pure tone, bone conduction, HINT word recognition tests, and caloric and vestibular function tests.
Social Security is concerned with how well you can hear in your better ear. If you have one ear with good hearing, or only mild hearing loss, you won't get disability benefits. You would get approved for disability only if the hearing in your better ear was so poor that you met the test requirements in the listing for that ear or your hearing impairment caused you not to be able to do any jobs.
Social Security doesn't pay a higher SSDI amount for deafness like it does for blindness. The amount of SSDI benefits paid for deafness or severe hearing loss depends on your lifetime earnings. Social Security will calculate your disability benefit by looking at your average income over your lifetime from jobs where you paid FICA taxes or self-employment taxes. For more information, read our article on how much money you can get through SSDI.
Updated November 17, 2022