What Types of Dwarfism Qualify for Social Security Disability Benefits?

You can qualify for disability benefits if your short stature causes you medical complications, but simply being under a certain height isn’t enough to qualify for disability benefits as an adult.

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Short stature and dwarfism are conditions that affect thousands of people throughout the United States. While many people who have these conditions lead normal and healthy lives, some may face significant physical and medical challenges every day. That's why some people who have short stature or dwarfism may qualify for Social Security disability benefits.

What Is Short Stature or Dwarfism?

The advocacy group Little People of America defines an individual as having short stature or dwarfism if they have a genetic or medical condition that causes their adult height to be 4' 10" or shorter, regardless of gender. But this definition is not set by law, and some individuals with a "dwarfing condition" can be taller.

While some people may refer to an individual with short stature or dwarfism as a "midget," the term is generally considered offensive. The terms "little person," "person of short stature," or "dwarf" are commonly accepted. But in every case, it's best to respect the wishes of the individual.

Causes of Dwarfism

Short stature and dwarfism can be the result of many different genetic and medical conditions. There is no single cause for dwarfism, but some of the leading causes include:

  • Bone disorders and skeletal dysplasias. These serious genetic conditions can lead to abnormally shaped bones, shortened limbs, and impaired joints. Individuals with these conditions can experience spinal problems and other serious issues like fluid buildup around the brain.
  • Growth hormone deficiency. Human growth hormones are responsible for bone and tissue development, and a lack of these hormones can cause short stature. Deficiencies can arise when there isn't enough growth hormone during development in the womb, or when an individual doesn't produce enough on their own.
  • Turner syndrome. This condition, which can affect growth and development, is a chromosomal syndrome that only affects females. Women with Turner Syndrome may have short stature and often face additional complications such as heart and kidney disorders, developmental delays, and diabetes. (You can check out our article on disability benefits for Turner Syndrome).

Disabilities Caused by "Disproportionate Dwarfism"

Dwarfism is sometimes divided into two general categories: proportionate and disproportionate dwarfism. Proportionate dwarfism refers to people of short stature whose head, trunk, arms, and legs are of the same proportions as those of average-sized people. Individuals with disproportionate dwarfism may have comparably shorter limbs, reduced mobility, and larger or smaller heads relative to their bodies.

Achondroplasia, spondyloepiphyseal dysplasia congenita, and diastrophic dysplasia are the most common types of disproportionate dwarfism (and are all types of skeletal dysplasia).

Achondroplasia

This type of skeletal dysplasia is the most commonly diagnosed cause of short stature or dwarfism and is the most common type of "short-limb dwarfism." Individuals with achondroplasia will typically have shorter arms and legs and an average-sized trunk. Health conditions are common for individuals with achondroplasia, including:

  • difficulty breathing
  • sleep apnea
  • bowed legs, and
  • spinal issues such as:
    • stenosis (narrowing of the spine)
    • lordosis (forward curvature of the spine)
    • scoliosis (lateral curvature of the spine)
    • kyphosis (a spinal curvature called roundback), and
    • spondylolisthesis (vertebral slippage).

Spondyloepiphyseal Dysplasia Congenita

Individuals with spondyloepiphyseal dysplasia congenita (SEDc), a type of "short-trunk dwarfism," typically have a short torso, short arms, and short legs, but their hands, feet, and head are of average size. People with SEDc may experience a range of health problems, including:

  • vision issues
  • hearing issues
  • spinal issues such as scoliosis, lordosis, or kyphosis
  • hip deformities or osteoarthritis
  • foot deformities including club feet and flat feet
  • degenerative joint diseases in the knee or shoulder
  • mobility issues such as difficulty walking
  • neck instability and pain, and
  • cleft palate.

Diastrophic Dysplasia

Diastrophic dysplasia, also called diastrophic dwarfism, causes very short arms and legs along with spinal deformities. People with diastrophic dysplasia often develop joint pain, early osteoarthritis, and mobility issues (difficulty walking). Some children with diastrophic dysplasia have breathing problems, which can lead to pneumonia. Other medical problems include:

  • spinal issues such as scoliosis or kyphosis
  • joint deformities, called contractures, in the hips and knees
  • spina bifida occulta (incomplete closure of vertebrae)
  • neck instability and pain
  • foot deformities including club feet
  • "hitchhiker's thumb" (short thumb, in unusual position), and
  • cleft palate.

Treatments for Complications of Dwarfism

Many individuals with short stature or dwarfism require lifelong medical care as issues arise. While there is no cure for dwarfism and many of the complications it causes, medical treatment can stop or slow the progression of some medical conditions, especially if treatment starts in childhood. Some of the interventions that adults with dwarfism may need include:

  • surgical removal of the tonsils or adenoids to make it easier to breathe
  • spinal decompression surgery
  • hip replacement surgery
  • knee replacement surgery
  • physical therapy to improve walking and other movements, and
  • surgical or therapeutic treatment for foot deformities.

Does Short Stature or Dwarfism Qualify as a Disability?

People with short stature or dwarfism can be eligible for Social Security disability benefits in some situations. But contrary to information that's circulating online about a so-called "little person disability," simply being under a certain height isn't enough to qualify for disability benefits if you're an adult. (As mentioned above, children can sometimes qualify for SSI benefits for short stature and failure to thrive.)

Instead, adult applicants need to show that they have a severe medical condition or conditions that prevent them from working. One way to do this is to have medical evidence that you have a condition that's listed in the Blue Book published by the Social Security Administration (SSA) and that your condition meets the strict requirements in the listing. The second method of qualifying for disability benefits is to have medical evidence of severe limitations in your ability to do many work-related tasks.

What Are the SSA's Listings for Dwarfism?

There is no single listing for short stature or dwarfism in the adult listings of the Social Security Administration's Blue Book. Given the wide range of causes of short stature or dwarfism, each individual's case needs to rely on specific listings for related medical conditions.

Here are some of the listings that commonly apply to people with dwarfism, with links to our articles explaining the requirements of the listings:

These listings are not easy to "meet" (qualify under); for example, to meet any of the musculoskeletal listings above (for spine and joint conditions), you must have so much difficulty walking that you need either a wheelchair or a walker or two canes (or, if you're unable to use one hand, then you need to use at least one cane for walking).

What If My Condition Doesn't Fall Under These Categories?

Short stature and dwarfism affect every person differently. You may have moderate limitations or limitations that make it very difficult to get and keep a job even though you don't need assistance walking and you aren't legally blind or profoundly deaf.

But you aren't expected to do a job that's beyond your physical capabilities, so even if you don't have a condition that meets a listing, you might not have the ability to perform many jobs. If Social Security finds there are no jobs that you can do, full time, with your limitations, the agency can find you disabled "vocationally."

To determine if there are any jobs you can do, Social Security will assess your "residual functional capacity" (RFC). Your RFC is a list of the most intensive work you can do despite your limitations. For instance, if you have joint or muscle weakness issues, your RFC might say that you can't lift more than 25 pounds regularly or walk more than two hours a day.

Generally, the more limited a person is, the harder it will be for them to find full-time work, and the more likely it is that the SSA will approve the claim.

Social Security assesses each condition on a case-by-case basis. Following are some of the common non-listed conditions that people with short stature or dwarfism may suffer from, with links to articles on how Social Security will assess your ability to work if you have that condition.

Since numerous conditions can cause short stature or dwarfism, and each can present its own health concerns, understanding which rules may apply to your situation can be difficult. Depending on your condition and your needs, it may be helpful to speak with a legal professional about your options. A lawyer or advocate can listen to you and help determine whether you might qualify for Social Security disability benefits.

What Evidence Will the SSA Use to Make a Decision?

The SSA will rely on many different types of evidence when determining whether an applicant has a qualifying disability. The SSA wants to see recent medical evidence, such as physical examination reports and clinical test results within the last four to six months. It's important to have medical evidence like the following:

  • clinical notes from your doctor's physical examinations
  • a statement from your doctor detailing your diagnoses, type of dwarfism, and the limitations caused by your short stature and/or related medical conditions
  • imaging tests such as X-rays, MRIs, CT scans to show bone abnormalities, and
  • results of genetic testing.

The SSA's determination might also rely on non-medical evidence about your ability to function day to day, your pain level, ongoing treatment, and other factors that could limit your activities.

Will Someone With Short Stature or Dwarfism Qualify Technically for SSDI?

Social Security disability insurance (SSDI) is a program mainly for people who worked in the past but may not be able to work now. To qualify on your own earnings record, you'll need to have worked and earned enough credits for coverage by earning money. The amount of money earned per credit received changes from year to year, but in 2022, each $1,510 of earnings translated to one credit. You can earn up to four credits per year.

As a general rule, you'll need to earn 40 credits in your life, 20 of which you must earn in the ten-year period before you become disabled. There are some exceptions to the number of work credits needed for younger workers.

Also, adults who have never worked can qualify for SSDI under their parents' earnings records if:

  • their disability began before age 22
  • they aren't married, and
  • their parents are eligible for Social Security retirement or disability benefits.

The SSA calls these benefits "adult child" SSDI benefits.

Adults who've never worked, who haven't earned enough credits for SSDI, and who can't qualify under their parents' records might be eligible for disability benefits through Supplemental Security Income (SSI) if they have very low income and resources.

Do Childhood Disability Benefits Continue into Adulthood?

If you receive SSI as a child, depending on your disability, your benefits under the SSI program might be extended into adulthood. The SSA will review your case before your 18th birthday. At that time, they'll use adult criteria for determining whether your condition qualifies as a disability and whether your benefits will continue. Learn more about that process in our article on age 18 redeterminations.

Applying for Disability Because of Short Stature or Dwarfism

The SSA has several options for applying, depending on your needs and your circumstances. You can apply by using the online form, by calling the Social Security office, or by visiting a local office in person. Each of these avenues comes with its own benefits and drawbacks. For example, while applying online is convenient, some people may need help with answering questions. And while visiting an office in person may work for some people, doing so may be too time-consuming or physically painful for others.

If you want to make a phone appointment or check your application status, you can call the SSA Monday through Friday at 800-772-1213 (TTY 800-325-0778) from 8:00 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.

Next Steps in the Benefits Process

After you've applied for disability benefits, a disability claims examiner will contact you if they need more information. They will look at the evidence supporting your application and consult with a doctor who works with them. Based upon their review, they will either approve or deny your claim.

If Social Security denies your claim, you can appeal the decision. An appeal starts with requesting an initial reconsideration and can go all the way to filing an appeal with the Social Security Appeals Council. How to best handle your appeal will depend on the information in your application, your needs, and what the claims examiner says about your application. For help appealing a denied claim, it can be helpful to have an experienced disability benefits lawyer on your side.

Published January 17, 2022

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