In order to know whether you can work, the Social Security Administration (SSA) needs to know what you are still able to do, after considering the effects of your disability. For instance, if you can still sit and type, but you can't walk or stand for three hours, the SSA will use this information to show you can probably do some kinds of work but not others.
To learn what your capabilities are, a disability claims examiner works with a medical consultant at DDS (Disability Determination Services, a state agency that works for the SSA) to perform an RFC (residual functional capacity) assessment on your claim. The consultant will determine what level of exertion you are capable of, and what restrictions limit the jobs you can do. The medical consultant will rely on your medical record and your doctor's notes about your functional abilities and restrictions to come up with your RFC. (For more information, see our article on the RFC form.)
Your physical RFC determines whether you can be expected to do sedentary work, light work, or medium work. For instance, if your doctor has restricted you to walking and standing no more than two hours per day, your RFC will be for sedentary work. Here are the various exertional levels that could appear in your RFC.
Your RFC will also include any non-exertional restrictions, such as not being able to stoop, use your fingers, or remember instructions.
The disability claims examiner at DDS will first use your RFC to determine if you can be expected to do your prior job. The examiner will look at your work history for the past 15 years to see what type of work you know how to do. If your prior job was sedentary and your RFC is for sedentary work (or higher), the claims examiner will probably find you should be able to return to your job, unless your RFC has further non-exertional restrictions. (If you have mental or emotional limitations, such as memory problems from a psychiatric or neurological disorder, or you are unable to concentrate, DDS should create a mental RFC for you as well.)
Note that to be considered able to work, you must be able to work full time, attend work regularly, be productive at work, and not need to take frequent rest breaks. (For more information, see this article on not being able to sustain full-time work.)
If the disability examiner determines you can't do your prior job, the examiner will then use the SSA's medical-vocational rules grid to determine whether, given your RFC, your age, your education, and your skills, you should be able to learn another job. For more information, see our series of articles on the medical-vocational grid rules, which we have organized by age and RFC level.