Most individuals who apply for Social Security disability don't know what criteria the Social Security Administration (SSA) uses to determine whether someone is disabled. One of the key tools that Social Security uses is a listing of impairments known as the "Blue Book." If you meet the requirements of the Blue Book listing for your condition, you'll probably qualify for Social Security disability benefits.
Read on to learn how the disability listings work, how to use the listings to help your case, and what you can do if your impairment isn't listed.
The Blue Book is a listing of impairments that the SSA considers serious enough to potentially keep someone from working. It details the medical criteria the SSA uses to determine if specific conditions are disabling enough to keep someone from working.
If you match the requirements of a listed impairment (called a "listing"), you'll automatically qualify as disabled, regardless of whether you could actually work an undemanding job or not. Note that you would still need to meet the SSA's non-medical requirements to get Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) or Supplemental Security Income (SSI). The listings just provide a way for the SSA to speed up some of its decisions.
The Blue Book is divided into two main parts:
Each of these parts is divided into sections (15 for children and 14 for adults) containing information about different types of disabilities. The major body systems addressed within the Social Security disability handbook are as follows:
For each major body system, the Blue Book contains a listing of disabling conditions. For instance, you'll find fractures and spinal disorders addressed in the musculoskeletal section. And coronary artery disease and congestive heart failure fall into the section of the cardiovascular system.
Because illnesses and injuries have varying degrees of severity, the Blue Book sets out the requirements for how severe the symptoms, clinical findings, and laboratory tests for a particular impairment must be for automatic approval.
If your condition doesn't meet the requirements of a listing, it doesn't mean you can't get disability benefits. It means the SSA must go through a longer determination process to see if you're disabled, but if you can match a listing, the process stops there.
Here's how to use the listings to see if you should automatically qualify for disability.
First, you need to know whether your condition has a listing in the Blue Book. You can look at the SSA's impairment listings to see if you can find your medical condition in a listing. You may need your doctor's help to decipher the medical language the listings use.
If your disability is listed, the next step is to determine if your medical condition meets the specific criteria for that condition to automatically qualify for benefits. The listing requirements are often quite complex, so you'll probably need your doctor's help to determine if you meet a listing.
If you haven't had the clinical or laboratory tests required in the listing, you can ask your doctor to perform them. (Or you can wait for the SSA to pay for a consultative exam, but this makes your claim take longer, and it's generally better if the test results are already in your medical record.) Then you'll need to check to see if your test results meet the requirements of the listing.
If your impairment doesn't match the requirements of the listing, the claims examiner will determine if your impairments can be considered equivalent to a similar listing, in terms of severity. The SSA allows you to "equal" a listing because it can't include every form or variant of a severe disability in its impairment listings. The SSA also recognizes that there are various ways to diagnose and document the same illness.
For instance, the listing might require a specific result on a specific lab test, and you weren't given that test, but you did take a test that shows the same results as the test required by the listing.
Another way to equal a listing is by having a combination of impairments that by themselves aren't severe enough to meet a specific listing, but combined, their severity equals that of a listed impairment. If the SSA says your impairments are equal to (as severe as) those in the disability listings, you'll be medically qualified for disability benefits.
If you have to appeal an initial denial of benefits, and you want to argue that your condition is equal to a listed impairment, you'd probably benefit from hiring a disability lawyer who can help you build your case.
Learn more about how to equal a disability listing.
Not all medical and psychological conditions are listed in the Blue Book—it would be impossible to list all disabling illnesses and injuries in a handbook. Some examples of conditions not in the Blue Book are:
(Learn more about which medical conditions qualify for disability and whether or not they're listed in the Blue Book.)
You can get disability benefits for a condition not listed in the Blue Book if you can prove the condition is a "medically determinable impairment" (an impairment that can be shown using accepted clinical and laboratory diagnostic methods). You must also show that your impairment limits your ability to function too much for you to work.
Learn more about how Social Security decides whether you're disabled if you don't meet a listing.
Updated June 29, 2022