by Neil Bauman, Ph.D.
From time to time people ask me whether they are eligible for Social Security Disability (SSD) because they now have a hearing loss. This most often occurs when someone has had normal hearing and then experiences a sudden hearing loss. Compared to before they lost their hearing, it now seems like they can’t function in a hearing world—hence this question.
It is true that, in general, people with uncorrected hearing loss do indeed have a much harder time getting and keeping jobs in spite of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Several studies also have revealed that typically hard of hearing people often earn less than their hearing counterparts.
Thus, it may seem that the only way to survive is to obtain SSD. To me this is just wimping out. When you lose part of your hearing, you don’t also automatically lose your intelligence, your skills and your experience. With a bit of accommodation, you are still capable of supporting yourself and your family.
However, if you have a severe/profound hearing loss AND one or more other disabilities, you may find it almost impossible to work, or to find an employer that will work around your disabilities as they would be too disruptive to the job.
For example, say you have Meniere’s Disease and have daily or weekly bouts of intense dizziness or vertigo so all you can do is lay down because your balance is shot. These attacks happen without warning. Thus, your attendance at work (and indeed your ability to work) is sporadic and unpredictable. In such cases, you might need to apply for SSD as your only way to keep body and soul together.
Navigating the SSD application process is a bit of a minefield. You submit your application to the Social Security Administration—and to your dismay, you are summarily turned down. What do you do now? This is where you need help from lawyers well versed in the SSD process. The problem can be in finding a knowledgeable SSD lawyer in your area. One place you can turn to is the Social Security Disability Help website. It is maintained by lawyers around the country who specialize in helping qualified people obtain SSD benefits.
I asked Ram Meyyappan, the manager of the Social Security Disability Help website to write an article that will help you (hard of hearing people) understand the SSD eligibility rules and will guide you through the application process. Here it is.
Applying for SSD if You Have a Hearing Loss
by Ram Meyyappan
The Social Security Administration’s (SSA’s) eligibility guidelines for disability benefits with any diagnosis are complex.
The first step in the application process is to file an initial application for SSD. More than 60% of these are denied. The next step is the request for reconsideration, where you can submit any documents you may have omitted in the initial application. Over 80% of reconsideration requests are denied as well.
Your best chance of being awarded benefits is at the third stage, known as the hearing stage. This will be your only chance to argue your case in person in front of an Administrative Law Judge. The good news is that about 60% of claims are approved at this hearing stage.
Hearing loss is one of the conditions recognized in the SSA’s Blue Book. However, qualifying for Social Security Disability (SSD) benefits with a hearing loss diagnosis will require a substantial amount of medical testing and documentation.
Degrees of Hearing Loss and SSD Eligibility
Typically, you will have a better chance of your SSD claim being approved if you have both a hearing loss and another disabling condition, although hearing loss alone can qualify you for SSD benefits under certain circumstances.
In order for deafness and profound hearing loss to be eligible for SSD benefits you will need to provide substantiating documentation of the limitations these conditions place on you. In addition, you must include the results of particular diagnostic tests in your SSD application.
Mild and moderate hearing loss do not meet the SSA’s criteria for disability as they are not believed to present significant enough limitations in your performance of everyday tasks or in your ability to sustain gainful employment. That being said, even mild and moderate hearing loss can be partial qualifiers for SSD benefits if they are part of a larger syndrome or other illness that meets disability benefit requirements.
If your hearing loss is related to another medical condition, your SSD claim must include documentation of both conditions and the effects they have on your ability to work and perform everyday tasks. In addition, both conditions must be expected to last for a year or more.
Medical Documentation in a Hearing Loss SSD Application
If you are an SSD applicant and have undergone cochlear implant surgery, you automatically qualify for SSD benefits for 12 months following your implantation. Note that automatic qualification does not negate your need to complete the SSD application or to provide adequate substantiating medical documentation of your condition. It simply means claims based on cochlear implant surgery and hearing loss are expedited for quick approval by the Disability Determination Services (DDS) office.
At the end of the one-year post-op period, you, as a cochlear implant recipient, must undergo a re-evaluation with the SSA to determine if you are still eligible for disability benefits. In order to qualify for continued benefits, your word recognition in the Hearing in Noise Test, (HINT) must be 60 percent or lower. Periodic re-evaluations are conducted for all SSD recipients, and provided your HINT rating does not improve, you will continue to be found eligible for benefits.
If you have not had cochlear implant surgery, you must meet one of the following two sets of guidelines in order to receive disability benefits with a hearing loss diagnosis. The guidelines are defined by the type of hearing test that documents hearing loss and also require specific diagnostic findings on those hearing tests to meet eligibility standards.
1. Word Recognition Testing Criteria
Word recognition tests measure your “speech discrimination” abilities—that is, your ability to hear, understand and repeat words spoken to you during the exam. In order to meet eligibility criteria through a word recognition test, you must have a speech discrimination rating of 40 percent or lower in your “better ear”. Your better ear is the one in which your hearing loss is less significant. In other words, you must not be capable of accurately repeating back any more than 40 percent of the words spoken to you during the exam.
2. Audiometry Criteria
Qualifying under the Audiometry criteria means you must have an average air conduction hearing threshold of 90 decibels (dB) or lower in your better ear. You must additionally have a hearing threshold with bone conduction of 60 dB or less in your better ear as well. The hearing loss averaging process uses the three frequency measurements: 500, 1,000, and 2,000 hertz (Hz).
In addition to defining the types of tests required and the diagnostic results of those exams, the SSA also clearly defines the medical practitioners that are approved for completing hearing loss examinations and medical record documentation for SSD applications. Any hearing loss exam, no matter the type, must be completed by a licensed physician, an otolaryngologist (ENT), or an audiologist that is working under the direct supervision of either a licensed physician or ENT.
The SSA can always require you to attend a medical evaluation with a physician contracted with the DDS. The purpose of this appointment is to obtain further information necessary for accurately determining your eligibility for benefits.
The SSA may require you to take an Auditory Evoked Response Test (AERT) done by an audiologist. This test actually measures your brain activity in response to sounds in order to determine if your hearing loss is truly as pronounced as other more common hearing tests indicate it to be. If you do not take this test, or if the AERT shows significantly different results, your application for benefits will be denied.
Qualifying for SSD without Profound Hearing Loss or Deafness
As previously mentioned, hearing loss in combination with other disabling conditions can be a basis for a successful SSD application. There are certain circumstances under which hearing loss that does not meet the SSA’s definition of “profound” can also qualify for disability benefits. Specifically, you must show that your hearing loss seriously limits your functional capacity. You must prove you cannot hold gainful employment as a result of the level of hearing loss from which you suffer.
In most functional capacity hearing loss claims, your level of education and type of work experience are the primary factors considered in your inability to find and sustain gainful employment. Approval of an application under these circumstances is considered a medical vocational allowance by the SSA.
Some applicants are approved for benefits without further requirements; however, in some cases, the SSA may require you to participate in vocational rehabilitation in order to acquire new job skills that can help you find work in another field—one in which your hearing loss would not be a major issue. Receipt of SSD benefits is contingent upon your participation in vocational rehabilitation in such cases.
Your Hearing Loss Disability Claim
When filing for SSD with a diagnosis of hearing loss, it’s crucial you work closely with your treating physician(s) to appropriately document your condition for your disability application. Having legal assistance in filing your claim can also be beneficial. Most Social Security lawyers charge no fees for their services up front and are only paid if/when you are approved for benefits.
As mentioned previously, the majority of hearing loss disability applications are initially denied. This means that most applicants who wish to continue pursuing benefits eventually need to attend an appeal hearing with an administrative law judge. You may find it wise to hire a Social Security disability attorney to assist you throughout the application and appeals processes as using the services of a Social Security disability attorney can increase the chances your claim will be approved.
To learn whether you have the right attitude towards collecting social security disability benefits, read our companion article called “Hearing Loss and Social Security Disability“.
Also, read the excellent article by Deanna Power called “Do You Qualify for Social Security Benefits” on page 29 of Winter 2017 edition of Hearing Health magazine.
To learn more about SSD and how to apply for it, go to the official US Social Security Disability website. There you will find eligibility rules and the forms you need to start this process.
You might also want to check out TheSimpleDollar.com. They recently researched and published a guide and tool to help people understand social security disability benefits.
In the course of their research, they found that most people who have become or already living with disabilities were not fully aware of the benefits and resources that are available for them. This guide will not only answer common questions, such as how to qualify for but also features a calculator that can help estimate monthly and annual benefits.
You can see this guide at http://www.thesimpledollar.com/disability-benefits-guide/. Scroll about half way down this web page to see the disability benefit checker.