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Applying for SSA Disability: The Significance of Residual Functional Capacity

  • Published: 2009-02-19 (Revised/Updated 2010-01-16) : Author: Harry W. Glasser -
  • Synopsis: Steps Social Security Administration use to evaluate disability by comparing your disabling condition to published set of standards.

Main Document

When you apply for disability, one of the steps the Social Security Administration will use to evaluate your disability is by comparing your disabling condition to a published set of standards referred to as the Listing of Impairments. This listing is a specific description of common medical problems the SSA considers as disabling.

When you apply for disability, one of the steps the Social Security Administration will use to evaluate your disability is by comparing your disabling condition to a published set of standards referred to as the Listing of Impairments.

This listing is a specific description of common medical problems the SSA considers as disabling. If you have a particular impairment that is on the Listing and your symptoms and limitations are the same as the criteria described for the impairment, your claim will likely be approved. However, this rarely happens.

When your condition does not meet or equal a listed impairment the SSA will consider your residual functional capacity when evaluating your claim. The SSA defines residual functional capacity as your ability to perform work-like activities given your physical and mental limitations. In other words, the examiner or judge will decide what is the most activity you can do on a regular and continuing basis. Regular and continuing basis means a full 40-hour per week or equivalent work schedule.

Residual functional capacity may the key to proving disability. All jobs require both physical and mental activities. Physical demands include such actions as sitting, standing, walking, lifting, and stooping. Mental demands include the ability to remember instructions and procedures, and follow directions. Physical and mental limitations resulting from your impairments will affect your residual functional capacity. For example, if you suffer from a disability that prevents you from standing or walking for more than one hour in an eight hour day, then your residual functional capacity would prevent you from working at a job that required standing and walking more than one hour in a day. In another example, a disability that limits your ability to maintain attention for long periods of time would prevent you from working at a job that requires your ability to concentrate in order to perform a large number of complicated procedures.

The SSA considers the combined effect of all your impairments, both serious and minor, when evaluating your disability. When considering residual functional capacity, the SSA will focus less on the medical diagnosis described in your medical records and concentrate more on your medical and mental limitations and how they affect your ability to work. Residual functional capacity is determined from all available relevant information, including your medical records, yours and others statements, assessments, and the opinion of your treating doctor. Residual functional capacity is a medical decision, not a determination of whether you are disabled, but any decision based on residual functional capacity must include sound medical evidence.

If your residual functional capacity makes it possible for you to continue with your prior job, the SSA can deny your claim because you can return to that type of work. If your residual functional capacity restricts you so much that you cannot return to any of your past jobs, the SSA will also consider your age, education, and work experience, referred to as vocational factors, to determine whether you can do any work. If the SSA concludes that you cannot, then you will be allowed disability payments. The SSA uses a resource which relates work functions to countless jobs in our national economy called the Dictionary of Occupational Titles. The SSA will use this publication to determine what, if any, work you are capable of performing.

The SSA has two different residual functional capacity assessments for physical impairments and for mental impairments. During a residual functional capacity assessment, your physical capabilities are summarized as sedentary, light, medium, heavy, or very heavy. Mental capabilities are summarized as less than unskilled, unskilled, semiskilled, or skilled. The category of very heavy is not really a category because, by definition, it indicates you have no disability. Likewise, the category of less than unskilled, while not really a category, automatically qualifies you for disability because, by definition, it means that your mental abilities are so low you are incapable of performing any work whatsoever. For example, the result of your residual functional capacity assessments may determine that you are able to perform sedentary, unskilled work. These levels of capabilities are used in order to compare your residual functional capabilities with the levels assigned to the jobs listed in the Dictionary of Occupational Titles. The lower the capability level you are given the less likely the SSA will say there is work that you can perform. It is rare that a claimant will have only physical or only mental impairments, and it is actually the combination of both that drive the final determination. A claimant with both physical and mental impairments, when taken together with the claimant's vocational factors, may not be able to perform a sedentary, unskilled job and will be allowed benefits.

Most claims are decided on residual functional capacity, and not from meeting or equaling a Listing. Claims that rely on residual functional capacity are not usually approved until the claim has reached the third level of appeal- the administrative hearing. This is because the claim requires a more subjective conclusion that SSA examiners often pass to an administrative law judge.

Reference: For more information about residual functional capacity and other topics related to the Social Security Administration's evaluation of disability applications, we invite you to visit disabilityhandbook. On our website, you can also review or freely download samples of physical and mental residual functional capacity assessments.


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