As a specialist in Social Security Disability law, I see cases involving Degenerative Disc Disease more than any other impairment. Degeneration of spinal discs occurs naturally as people age, and this process can be hastened by the exertion required of heavy-duty jobs. This frequently results in back or neck pain, and can often involve more serious symptoms, such as radicular pain that travels into the arms or legs, or even neurological compromise which results in dysfunction in these extremities.
This dysfunction can not only leave someone incapable of the exertion they performed in past jobs, but can also make them unable to perform any kind of full-time, competitive employment. For these individuals, disability benefits may be their only option to replace the income they need to survive.
Getting Benefits for Degenerative Disc Disease Is Getting Harder
Our evolving economy and advancing technologies have rendered various occupations obsolete, leaving many without the skills and/or physical capability of working a full-time job to earn a reasonable living wage. This has led to policy proposals such as Universal Basic Income, which would be a monthly payment available to someone even without any kind of disability showing. A reduced availability of earned income would seemingly indicate a policy to expand payments of unearned income. Nonetheless, the Social Security Administration recently made a rule change making it much harder for someone to meet its “listing” (a set of medical criteria) to be approved for disability on the basis of degenerative disc disease which, as I’ve already mentioned, is the most common disabling impairment.
Not only is this rule change out of touch, it is ridiculous in substance. Degenerative Disc Disease falls under Listings 1.15 and 1.16, which you can read here.
The new listing is a completely unfair hindrance to those seeking to avail themselves of an income replacement program which should be expanded rather than further restricted. But don’t be discouraged. The Social Security disability attorneys at Keller & Keller specialize in developing strategies for showing Social Security’s judges why you deserve your disability, even if your spinal impairment doesn’t meet the near-impossible standards of this listing.
Thorough Medical Evidence Will Be Critical to Your Disability Claim
Like the old Listing 1.04, the new listings also require neurological compromise stemming from the disc degeneration. This occurs when the nerves connecting the spine to the extremities are impinged or compressed, causing tingling, numbness, and loss of strength and coordination. However, the new rules go further. They now provide that, absent a complete inability to use one or both of the upper extremities, someone needs to have a documented ongoing medical need for a walker, wheelchair, two canes, or two crutches to be approved.
There are plenty of people who are disabled due to a spinal impairment but haven’t been prescribed these assistive devices, and this listing does not incorporate these individuals. And even if someone does need something like a walker, the other requirements which must be documented are so extensive that even an individual like this is unlikely to be found to meet this listing (possibly only because their doctors haven’t ordered the exact kinds of tests the Social Security decision maker believes need to be done before someone could meet this listing).
How Our Social Security Attorneys Help Your Claim for Benefits
Generally, Social Security Disability benefits are available to those who cannot work on a full-time basis, and there are other ways we can prove this to the judge. Many of my clients with Degenerative Disc Disease cannot sit or stand for any extended period of time, making them unable to sustain the postures required of full-time work, even jobs which do not require much standing, walking, or lifting. To prove this to the judge, we will obtain all of the relevant medical records, seek opinions from your doctor, and then present your personal explanation of your sitting and standing limitations, how they affect in your daily life, and how they make you unable to work.
Even then, we should keep in mind that Degenerative Disc Disease is the most common disabling impairment and the inability to sit or stand for prolonged periods constitute the specific factors which would support a finding of disability. Therefore, the vocational experts Social Security pays to testify at its hearings are ready to present judges with a whole host of jobs which they claim allow for a “sit-stand option,” meaning a worker can sit whenever they want or stand whenever they want.
When pressed, these vocational experts usually don’t have any basis for making such a claim; they will just say it is based on their “education and experience,” and judges are inclined to blindly accept this, as this kind of testimony gives them complete control over the outcome of a case—it allows them to deny someone even in the face of compelling evidence showing significant sitting and stand limitations. While this is again discouraging, Keller & Keller’s disability attorneys are ready to challenge these vocational “experts” by cross-examining them and/or presenting evidence to the contrary. Without an advocate by your side to do this, you run the risk of receiving an extremely unfair denial of disability benefits.
Let Our Disability Lawyers Handle Your Case
Despite these challenges, many of Social Security’s decision makers are reasonable and will approve a claim when it’s clear that someone’s Degenerative Disc Disease makes them unable to work. To put your case in the best position to be approved by a reasonable decision maker, the best thing you can do is to seek appropriate medical treatment. A decision maker like this is going to feel most comfortable approving your claim if they see that you have done everything you could possibly do to treat your Degenerative Disc Disease—including medications, physical therapy, injections, even surgery—but still have not recovered to the point at which you are able to sustain any kind of full-time work.
Social Security’s rules were set up to be conducive to someone with Degenerative Disc Disease being approved if that person is over 55 and has a history of heavy work, but there are pitfalls even for someone in this situation. If you are younger and/or don’t have a history of heavier work, your case is going to be even more challenging, but you can contact Keller & Keller to discuss your situation and how we can help you.