When you apply for Social Security disability benefits, a claims examiner needs to know what you're still able to do, despite your disability, to decide whether you can work. To do so, the claims examiner will determine what your "residual functional capacity" (RFC) is. Your RFC is the most intensive work you're able to do (medium, light, or sedentary) despite the limitations caused by your medical conditions.
When you first apply for Social Security disability benefits, the Social Security Administration (SSA) sends your claim to Disability Determination Services ("DDS"), which is a state agency that works for Social Security. DDS works with a medical consultant, a doctor or a psychologist, who will perform an RFC (residual functional capacity) assessment on your claim.
The medical consultant will determine what level of exertion you're capable of and what restrictions you have. The consultant will review your medical records and doctor's notes and rely upon those to determine your abilities and restrictions, and then uses the abilities and restrictions to create your RFC.
The medical consultant uses an RFC form to rate your ability to engage in normal daily activities, taking into account your medical conditions. For instance, physical RFC forms include how long a claimant can sit, stand, walk, crouch, stoop, lift, and carry. Length of time is broken into five categories:
How long you're able to perform certain activities determines what exertional level you're able to perform work at. Here are the various exertional levels that could appear in your RFC:
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. 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've done and know how to do. The examiner will then compare the level of your RFC to the level of your past work.
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 non-exertional restrictions like an inability to remember instructions. (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.)
On the other hand, if your prior job was for medium work (for instance, an auto mechanic or a mail carrier), but DDS assigns you a light RFC, the examiner would have to find that you can't return to your former line of work.
If the examiner determines you can't do your prior job, they 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.
DDS will always have one of its medical consultants create an RFC. But it can be very helpful to submit the opinion of your own doctor with a comprehensive RFC form explaining the limitations you have and how they're caused by your medical conditions. Your own doctor is in a much better position to know the full effects and limitations of your medical conditions, as they have a personal treating relationship with you. Unfortunately, doctors can be reluctant to complete forms for a variety of reasons, including time constraints and clinic policy.
Hiring a disability advocate or lawyer can help get your doctor to complete an RFC form on your behalf. A disability advocate or lawyer can assist you by:
If you have questions about what your RFC might be, click here for a free case evaluation with an SSDI expert.
Updated January 26, 2022