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When applying for disability, the disability application forms ask you to describe your impairments, whether physical or mental, what treatments you have received, medications you are taking, and how your impairment(s) affect your ability to work. It is important to be specific and thorough when filling out this application.

When you first submit an application for disability benefits, the application will be reviewed quickly to make sure it meets basic requirements and to look at any current work history. From there your application will be sent to the local Disability Determination Services (DDS) in your state.

The state office (or the closest office in your state, if you live in a large state) will assign a DDS examiner to your case. This person will use the medical information provided in your file to complete a Residual Functional Capacity (RFC) form and to evaluate whether you meet disability criteria. Here are the steps they will use:

  1. Are you working at Substantial Gainful Activity (SGA)? Even being able to work a small amount does not disqualify you from claiming disability. If you are found to be able to support yourself by working, you will be denied benefits. If your impairment keeps you from earning enough money to support yourself, then you pass step one.
  2. Is your condition(s) severe enough to prevent your from doing basic work? If yes, you pass step two.
  3. Does your condition(s) “meet or medically equal” the definition in the list of impairments? If you can prove that you have met a listing, or if your conditions combined create problems which equal the listed conditions, then you will continue on to the next step. If your condition does not meet or equal a listing, you could be denied.
  4. Are you able to perform work you’ve done in the past? If you can return to your line of work, you will not be given benefits. If you are found unable to return to your previous line of work, you will move on to step five.
  5. Do your condition(s) and abilities allow you to do a different line of work? This is somewhat up to the SSA and their experts to determine whether there is another line of work that you are able to do. Rather than only going on your medical records, they must speculate about other jobs you can perform.

Sometimes more medical information is needed before a decision can be reached. If this information is not available, you may be asked to have a Consultative Exam (CE). This is an exam performed by a doctor assigned by the state who can help fill in gaps about your medical information. The Social Security Administration (SSA) pays for this exam.

Once enough medical information has been gathered, the DDS will make an initial disability determination and your case will be returned to the SSA. If you are found to be disabled, the SSA will calculate the benefit amount and pay benefits. If you are found to not be disabled, your file will be kept in the field office in case you decide to appeal your claim. This is called a Reconsideration Appeal.

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