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Social Security Disability Appeal Forms: What is SSA Really Trying to Ask

Posted Nov 22 2009 10:01pm

frustration One of the least discussed but perhaps most frustrating aspects of the Social Security disability process has to do with the forms that Social Security requires when you apply or appeal.  Over the years I have watched the forms evolve – and the trend is easy to detect:  Social Security's forms never get shorter.   Instead they add questions which appear to ask for the same information again and again.

In fact, the redundancy and complicated nature of these forms led me to write a "how to" book about filling out these forms (my book is called the Disability Answer Guide and you can read more about it at

The idea for my book came from a client who pointed out to me that when a person is depressed, has a limited education, is in pain, or is unable to concentrate, it can be very difficult to compose answers to a bunch of government forms that come with no instructions and seem to ask the same questions over and over.

This lament led me to the idea of a how to book where I could offer sample answers to the questions on the forms as well as a reasoned explanation from my perspective as to what information was really relevant to a  Social Security disability application and how to frame your answers to "speak SSA's language."

Not surprisingly I regularly receive questions about Social Security's forms – here is an example of such a question from a person I'll call "Neil:"

i dont know how to answer these medical question on the second part of socurity such as what your favorite hobbies, and what to do do from the time you get up and the time you go to bed

Here are my thoughts: First, I reproduced this question exactly as I received it.  I did so not to embarrass the writer but to highlight some of the problems inherent to the Social Security decision making system.

Now I know nothing at all about "Neil" or the basis of his claim.  However, I think it is clear that Neil is having a difficult time communicating what is in his head.  Why?  Consider:

  • he may be in severe pain
  • he may be suffering with a mental health condition
  • he may be affected by medications
  • he may have a learning issue
  • he may not be able to communicate in English

If Neil is having this much trouble writing about his favorite hobbies or what he does during the day, imaging how much difficulty he will have describing medical conditions, diagnoses, prognoses and work limitations.

Second, I suspect that Neil would have no way of knowing why Social Security would ask a question about his hobbies or daily activities.  If you know why a question is being asked, of course, you can prepare a better answer.

This question is part of a series of questions designed to document what are called "Activities of Daily Living" (called ADL's by Social Security).  When judges consider SSDI or SSI claims at hearings, they consider a claimant's ADL's in evaluating that claimant's capacity to function in a work environment.

For example, at a hearing a judge may ask:

  • how much can you lift
  • how long can you stand
  • how far can you walk

The judge will also ask:

what kind of household chores do you perform

  • do you vacuum
  • do you make the bed
  • do you handle the laundry

This second set of questions is designed to verify your answers from the first set.   If you vacuum, for example you are standing and walking, pushing a 5 to 10 lb. device, balancing, bending and functioning in a dusty environment.  If you make the bed, you are extending your arms over your head, twisting, bending and balancing.  If you handle the laundry you are most likely lifting 10 to 15 lbs., carrying, folding (gross motor strength), bending and perhaps stooping.

Neil asked how he should answer a question about what he does from the time he gets up until the time he goes to bed.   I obviously do not know what Neil does, but I would advise him as follows:

  • discuss what you do on an average day – your goal is to paint a picture for Social Security about your quality of life
  • everybody must eat, use the restroom and engage in some form of personal grooming.  If you have difficulty with these functions, say so.  For example, if you cannot cook because of problems standing or memory issues, explain that your meals are limited to sandwiches or soup because of specific physical or mental issues.  If you do not bathe or change clothes more than once a week because of depression, say so.
  • try to set out the time it takes you for simple activities – for example if it takes you 45 minutes to get dressed because of back pain, that is a relevant detail to include
  • if you spend your day watching TV, but you don't really concentrate, note that the TV is basically background noise and that you have trouble concentrating and focusing

Neil also asked how he should describe hobbies.  Obviously if Neil plays soccer 3 days a week that will hurt his case.  On the other hand if he used to play soccer but cannot any more, that might be something to say.  Social Security asks about hobbies because they want to see if you are engaging in activities that you enjoy.  Presumably someone who is able to play soccer 3 days a week would be less credible if he also says that he cannot work because of back problems.

Without question you should always tell the truth when answering Social Security's forms.  You should, however, avoid the tendency that many people have of describing what they used to be able to do, and you should think about why Social Security is asking a particular question and how your answer may be reinterpreted by a decision maker.

Post from: Social Security Disability Blog

Social Security Disability Appeal Forms: What is SSA Really Trying to Ask

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