Social Security Disability Applications
September 15, 2012 4:12 PM   Subscribe

I'm seeking real-life experiences in applying for Social Security Disability. Yesterday I completed my on-line application for Social Security Disability. I haven't been able to work since February and have been receiving first short-term and now long-term disability payments from my prior employer (I no longer have a job to go back to even if I were able to work). My long-term disability is approved in 3 month chunks, but since there has been no improvement in my condition, I don't have any reason to believe it wouldn't continue to be approved although it's stressful to me when those reapprovals come due.

I've seen this recent question, but it doesn't answer my questions.

Looking on-line leads you to believe no one ever gets approved for SSD without involving lawyers, and appeals, and court, a process that apparently takes years. I'd love to hear some real-life stories from folks who have gone through the process (or know someone who has). How long does it take? Is it true that no one is approved on first try? What was your (or your loved one)'s experience like?

I feel like I'm down the rabbit hole and just subject to the whims of the system at this point and hopefully some real life experiences would make me feel a little less whacked about it all. My MeMail is open, if you'd rather not reply in thread.
posted by SweetTeaAndABiscuit to Work & Money (18 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
This website seems to be pretty active and has real life experiences posted.
posted by dknott123 at 4:33 PM on September 15, 2012 [1 favorite]

Unfortunately, my friend's experience was that he did have to appeal an initial denial with a lawyer. The good news was that the appeal was successful and he has had the benefits he deserved since the appeal.
posted by treehorn+bunny at 4:54 PM on September 15, 2012

Check out Binder and Binder. Yes, SSD does typically disapprove you on your first app. Otherwise, it takes 4 to 8 months or longer to get approved (if it's a mental disability without hospitalization, even longer).

Beware of lawyers who want a percentage of your longterm benefits for life. At least Binder and Binder only takes a cut off the top of your back pay. As opposed to a lawyer who will bleed you for life, as I have seen.
posted by Marie Mon Dieu at 5:02 PM on September 15, 2012

My mother got approved on her first try for SSD because she had a stack of corroborating paperwork three inches thick. There is no "trick" involved, but if there was a trick, it would be to have so much evidence of your disability on your side that the person who is responsible for green-lighting your application takes one look at your paperwork and says, Wow, yup, you're disabled.

posted by Grlnxtdr at 6:50 PM on September 15, 2012 [1 favorite]

I'm visually impaired and have made use of disability at one time or another over the years. If you're already approved and you are able to provide proof you've got nothing to worry about. Worst case is you appeal the decision, demonstrate your employer's willingness to pay out, get some doctors to sign off on the condition, and you should be good. You didn't mention the condition, and I'm sure you have your reasons for that. However, if the condition is severe enough (i.e. physical and self-evident) you should be fine. It's always been pretty hands-off for me because of how evident my disability is. I've rarely had to wrangle with it for any extended period of time or ever for that matter. If you have questions, feel free to MeMail me. Don't know how much help I'll be, but I'm willing to try.
posted by Ephelump Jockey at 7:08 PM on September 15, 2012

>Check out Binder and Binder

Do not use lawyers who advertise on TV. Especially ones who wear ten-gallon hats. Sheesh!
posted by yclipse at 7:30 PM on September 15, 2012 [1 favorite]

Two perhaps obvious points: First, the more medical evidence, the better. I would provide stacks of paper if the paper supports a finding of disability. Second, your own and third-party declarations should be detailed and describe impairments in and difficulties with daily activities -- and remember to be thinking about a day in which your condition is at its most active -- your "worst day" -- as opposed to a good day or your best day.

Oh, I have a third. SSDI and SSI are benefits that are, for better or worse, and mostly worse, tied directly to the applicant's ability to convince the agency of his or her nearly total inability to work or to do work-type activities. So, when you are assembling your application, you need to be sharing and oversharing and stating very clearly everything you can't do or have trouble doing in excruciating detail -- all the bad stuff. Which is kind of a mind f***. Later, after the application is in, you can do a ritual or something to forget or put aside the dark depressing litany of details and bring back into your mind all of your strengths and abilities.
posted by ClaudiaCenter at 7:42 PM on September 15, 2012 [6 favorites]

Beware of lawyers who want a percentage of your longterm benefits for life. At least Binder and Binder only takes a cut off the top of your back pay. As opposed to a lawyer who will bleed you for life, as I have seen.

This is illegal and will get an attorney disbarred from representing claimants before the SSA, if not criminal charges.

The maximum a representative can collect is 25% of the back benefits, or $6000.
posted by T.D. Strange at 10:52 PM on September 15, 2012

Oh, I have a third. SSDI and SSI are benefits that are, for better or worse, and mostly worse, tied directly to the applicant's ability to convince the agency of his or her nearly total inability to work or to do work-type activities.

This. You need to show that you are totally incapable of doing any kind of activity that someone would pay you to do, up to an including watching a security camera for 8 hours a day.

It will help if you have multiple doctors stating this explicitly.
posted by T.D. Strange at 10:57 PM on September 15, 2012

I don't have any first-hand experience but there is good information here. For example, 64% of applicants are turned down at their initial application, 86% are rejected at the reconsideration step, but 63% get approved if they take it to a hearing. 90% of applicants have a lawyer or other representative. Apologies if you've already read that article, and good luck.
posted by Susan PG at 11:55 PM on September 15, 2012 [1 favorite]

It took about 8 months from when I applied to when I received my back pay and started receiving the monthly check. I was not turned down so I did not have to appeal, although that is a very common experience.

I had no paperwork. I didn't even have a doctor of my own so I was examined by Social Security's contracted doctor. I'm sure a lot of it might have just been time and circumstance, but one thing that I believe helped was being willing to "embarrass" myself when sharing my problems. There is a strong tendency to hold back or try to put a happy face on your abilities.
posted by Danila at 1:10 AM on September 16, 2012 [2 favorites]

I got approved for SSDI based on mental disabilities with 5 years of corroborating evidence and three hospitalizations, two of which were involuntary. My former workplace was paying me short term disability based on all of that evidence.

It still took me 2 1/2 years. SSA denied my first claim and my reconsideration without even bothering to have me seen by an independent psychologist or psychiatrist. I ended up having to go before a judge, in an "Administrative Law Judge" hearing. That's pretty typical from everything I've heard.

They did backdate the money. Yes, I had to get a "lawyer" (in some states, including mine, they allow non-lawyers who are trained in this kind of thing, which is what mine was), but it would be possible to do it without one (I have severe anxiety among many other things, so my agency basically held my hand the entire way), although I don't recommend it if you think judges are scary, because I was fucking terrified the entire time.

I based my application to SSA solely on mental illness, with no physical problems and a spotty but semi-decent work history. Initially, I had to apply for disability on my own. First, I went to an interview in-person at the SSA office (which I scheduled online). As far as I know, if your disability prevents you from going to the office in person, they can do the interview over the phone.

Then, after the in-person interview where they asked me a ton of questions about my work history and not very many about my disability (in person version of this questionnaire [PDF]), they sent me a questionnaire that I had to fill out that was ALL about my disability. SSA disability "Adult Function Report" questionnaire (PDF)

(They also sent one to my parents that was like the third party version of the Adult Function Report. I no longer remember why they sent it to my parents: they probably asked who had the best idea of how I functioned on a daily basis, and I said my parents because I live with them.)

SSA initially denied me, and when I got my first denial, I went immediately to the lawyers because I literally could not handle the paperwork anymore. (If you're in the Midwest, PM me and I'll share who I worked with. They were extremely helpful.) Even though most people don't work with a lawyer until they get to the 3rd stage (seeing an Administrative Law Judge [ALJ]), they aren't charging me anymore than normal for helping me with the second stage (first appeal). They literally cannot--SSA determines that the most a representative's fee can be is 25% of your backpay or 6000 dollars, whichever is less.

Oh, and what ClaudiaCenter said about filling out the forms is true. Be as honest and blunt as you can. It's a major mindfuck, and it sent me spiraling into an episode of depression, but it's absolutely crucial to be completely honest about the effects your disability has on your life. If you say something like "I go to the grocery store regularly" when what you really mean is "My best friend helps me make a list, drives me to the grocery store, and fills the cart with what's on the list while I have a panic attack in the car, then they drag me back inside so I can pay"-- you WILL be much more likely to be denied.

There's nowhere near enough space on the form in my opinion, especially if you're applying due to mental illness. Use extra paper and label it carefully, i.e. PAGE 5 OF 11, and then on the form "SEE PAGE 5 OF 11!"

I've heard if you get someone else to help you fill out the form, it looks better. I did it myself, even though it took me an extra month and I had to call for an extension, but I got denied originally, so.
posted by saveyoursanity at 1:15 AM on September 16, 2012 [3 favorites]

Check with The North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services ( (I am assuming that is where you are located via your profile) to see if they have an approved list of lawyers who handle the applications. I know where I live that is the case. Also where I live, the health department will send a county (or state) rep to go with you to the interview with the lawyer or firm which precedes the SS interview. So you get a double dose of assurance.

When applying for benefits, the county or the state may have already pre-screened firms and they are have agreements in place governing fees, behavior and your rights. Of course, YMMV for your area, but it puts a measure of accountability into the mix that you just won't get with a group that uses an ominous tag line like "Nobody intimidates our clients. Nobody!". And of course, the 10-Gallon-Hat-Auto-Distrust rule applies as well.

(The only people intimidating their clients I posit are B&B themselves)
posted by lampshade at 5:36 AM on September 16, 2012

I was approved the first time, within five months of us submitting my application, and got the maximum back benefit. This was probably helped by the fact that at that point I'd been bedridden for a few years already, and that I had a specialist in my obscure disease who has been through the SSDI process many times and knew just what to say to maximize my chances of getting approved.

One thing I would say is that areas of the application can seem very redundant when you're filling it out, like "Didn't I tell them this already?" but it's in your best interest to express how your disability affects you in every one of those questions.
posted by jocelmeow at 6:32 AM on September 16, 2012

ClaudiaCenter hit the nail on the head. Be depressing. Also, if you live with a significant other, they will be asked to complete a form describing your abilities and activities. They are not supposed to consult you about the questions. My partner was feeling badly about "making me look bad or lazy or..." I told her just be brutally honest -- don't worry about offending me! We both know that I'm working with rehabilitation to find ways to do some of the things I can no longer do.

I have multiple disabilities. I was on SSDI @ 15 years ago and got off of it, and loverly as my life is, I'm back on it. The thing to remember is that SSDI is making a judgement that you are permanently f' up I was approved both times the first time through.

Since I now have a visual impairment and I get easily overwhelmed with this sort of process, I was thrilled that my LTD insurance paid to hire Allsup to process my application. Allsup helped me gather all of the evidence (and suggested some medical professionals/records I'd not thought of) and packaged it together super neatly. The SSDI caseworker who approved my case told me that my package was well organized and made her job a lot easier! I did have to see one of SSD's doctors because it had been too long since I saw my own orthopedist. But it was no problem.

I asked my Vocational Rehab counselor about the rumored turn everyone down the first time. According to him one of two things is happening. First -- all too commonly people just do not have every last bit of documentation and are not brutally honest about their limitations. Second -- sometimes the applicant is not disabled enough the first time but their disaibliity has worsened by the time of appeal.

I worked on a SSA web project with a woman who used to be a disability examiner. She also told me that they have to be sticklers for completed forms and thorough documentation. If the case is thin, they err or the side of denial.

If you are like me and get overwhelmed/shut down with the prospect of getting through the process, look into someone to help with filing. Not a lawyer!
posted by Librarygeek at 12:41 PM on September 16, 2012

I applied for Social Security Disability, was denied, appealed, and won easily. The judge even verbally bitch-slapped the Social Security people for failing to make any sort of case against me.

Like the others have said, it helps to:

1. Have a doctor who's been treating you for a while swear in writing that you can't do much of anything. That's a tough thing for them to disprove. They give the doctor forms that ask questions like "How many hours can this patient stand on his/her feet for one hour without assistance?" The doctor should answer "zero" and answer all the other questions in a similar fashion.

2. Have a thick folder full of medical records. My lawyer usually seemed irritable and cranky, but when I brought my medical history to her and it was (literally) over six inches thick, her face lit up and she couldn't say enough positive things. "This is wonderful!" "Excellent!"

I would add...

3. Be able to tell the judge, in your own words, about trying to work and being unable. I had to tell some of my most humiliating stories from work, about my memory lapses making me look like a complete idiot, my co-workers increasingly despising me, and my manager getting fed up as well. I was sweating bullets during the recitation, but it definitely helped win the case.
posted by Clay201 at 8:19 PM on September 16, 2012 [2 favorites]

I applied for Social Security Disability, was denied, appealed, and won easily. The judge even verbally bitch-slapped the Social Security people for failing to make any sort of case against me.

My judge did the same thing, except he did it in writing in the letter I got once they'd approved me. Honestly, once you get to the ALJ stage, my experience was that even though it was frightening as hell to be in front of a JUDGE, telling all your horrible stories about how you tried to work but couldn't--they're way more sympathetic than they can ever really sound while they're actually talking to you that day.
posted by saveyoursanity at 8:50 PM on September 22, 2012

Thanks for all the answers above. Surprisingly (to me), I was approved for SSDI only five weeks after my initial application!! I attribute that to fact that I had been seeing the same rheumatologist for over 10 years and she did a good job of documenting the progression of my disease. There was also a good paper trail of how I had begun to work intermittently (through FMLA) over the last couple of years before I had to stop working altogether.
posted by SweetTeaAndABiscuit at 12:15 PM on December 31, 2012 [2 favorites]

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