You may have problems seeing or hearing well enough to work, even with glasses or a hearing aid, but not be considered legally blind or profoundly deaf. If the SSA finds that you don’t meet its requirements for legal blindness or requirements for profound deafness, before rejecting your application for disability benefits, the SSA is required to consider the effect of your vision or hearing problems on your capacity to perform daily activities and to function at work. The SSA will then determine whether you can be expected to do your regular job, and if not, whether there is any other kind of work you can do.
How Functional Limitations Affect the Disability Determination
The SSA will evaluate your eye tests or hearing tests as well as your medical records, which it will request from your ophthalmologist or ENT (ear, nose and throat) doctor. In particular, the SSA will be interested in your doctor's notes on any functional limitations and restrictions your vision or hearing problems cause you, to determine if your eyesight or hearing problems rise to the level of a disability that prevents you from working.
The SSA, with the help of a medical consultant, will review the functional restrictions your doctor has put in your medical file. For instance, if your visual acuity is 20/70 or worse, your doctor may have noted in your file that you have been advised not to drive. If your regular job was driving a truck, you won’t be able to continue doing it, so the SSA will look at your age, education, and experience to see if there is another job you can do. If you have little education or skills you could transfer to another job, it’s possible that the SSA might find that there is no work you could be expected to do. However, unless you are over 55, this is unlikely, since the SSA will no doubt say there are plenty of unskilled jobs you could do, or learn to do, that don’t require driving.
Residual Functional Capacity (RFC) for Poor Eyesight or Hearing
To decide if your vision or hearing impairment rises to the level of a disability that prevents you from working, the SSA will give you a residual functional capacity (RFC) rating. If your best-corrected vision is 20/50 or worse in your better eye, or your pure tone average is worse than 40 db in your better ear, you should get an RFC listing any work-related restrictions you should have.
Your RFC will list the type of work the SSA thinks you can do based on your restrictions (sedentary work, light work, medium work, or heavy work). For instance, if your doctor has limited you to no lifting more than 20 pounds or no more than occasional bending, your RFC will be for light work. If you can carry up to 50 pounds for up to one-third of the day, and up to 25 pounds for up to two-thirds of a day, your RFC will be for medium work. These categories may not seem related to hearing or vision, but if you have a detached retina, or are at risk of a detached retina, your doctor may give you a restriction on heavy lifting. If you have an illness causing your vision loss such as advanced diabetic retinopathy, there may be other restrictions that might not seem vision-related as well, such as no frequent bending or kneeling.
If you are assigned an RFC for light or medium work and have always done heavy work, you could be approved for disability benefits in some cases (especially if you're older than 55). In many cases, however, you will be denied benefits if you have an RFC of medium or light work. It’s likely the SSA will find that there are many sedentary and light jobs one can do where perfect vision isn’t important, but if you are older than 55, have less than a high school education, and have no skills you could transfer to a new job, the SSA may find that you should be granted disability benefits via what’s called a medical-vocational allowance.
Your RFC should also include specific restrictions on the types of work you can’t do because of your poor vision. For instance, your RFC might include:
- no working near hazardous machinery (poor peripheral vision)
- no operating hazardous machinery or driving (visual acuity worse than 20/70), or
- no working at unprotected heights (poor peripheral vision).
If the SSA determines that you can do your prior job with the RFC you’ve been given, then you won’t get disability benefits. If not, next the SSA will consider your RFC along with your age, education, and experience to determine whether there are any other jobs you can be expected to do that don’t require good vision.
If you don’t qualify under the official SSA impairment listings for hearing loss or deafness, but your hearing loss is significant (for example, your pure tone threshold is an average of 50 db across the various frequencies, and you cannot identify speech sounds more than 60% of the time when words are read to you), you may have difficulty talking to other people and following directions. This is a significant work-related impairment, yet you wouldn't meet the SSA's listing for hearing loss.
If your pure tone average is worse than 40 db in your better ear, the SSA should give you an RFC. The SSA should include specific restrictions in your RFC on the type of work you can’t do. For hearing loss, the key question for your RFC is whether you can do work that requires good hearing and good word recognition. If you have moderate to marked hearing loss, and/or poor word recognition, you probably can’t. So if the SSA puts restrictions regarding hearing in your RFC, you won’t be expected to do jobs that require the use of the telephone or communicating over a radio or jobs with a lot of background noise.
Your RFC should also include specific restrictions on the type of work you can’t do because of your poor hearing. For instance, your RFC might include:
- no working near hazardous machinery (poor hearing or vestibular-related balance problems)
- no operating hazardous machinery or driving (poor hearing or balance problems), or
- no working at unprotected heights (vestibular-related balance problems).
If the SSA determines that you can do your prior job with the RFC you’ve been given, then you won’t get disability benefits. If not, next the SSA will consider your RFC along with your age, education, and experience to determine whether there are any other jobs you can be expected to do that don’t require good hearing. It’s likely the SSA will find that there are many jobs you can do where hearing isn’t important. But if your hearing loss is marked and you are older than 55, have less than a high school education, and have no skills, there may not be jobs that the SSA would expect you to do, and you could be granted disability benefits via a medical-vocational allowance.
The SSA has a grid that sets out whether a claimant will receive a medical-vocational allowance based on the claimant’s RFC, age, education, and prior experience (to see the grid and explanations of it, check out Nolo’s Guide to Social Security Disability, by David Morton).
You may want to hire an attorney to help you get disability benefits based on an RFC for eyesight problems or hearing loss, because SSDI and SSI aren’t easy to get for vision and hearing problems that don’t meet the standard for statutory blindness or statutory hearing loss. Especially if you are initially denied benefits, it makes sense to hire an attorney with experience with partial blindness or partial deafness cases. For instance, if your doctor agrees that you should have functional restrictions on what you can do because of your poor vision or hearing, a disability attorney will know what information your doctor should include in your RFC.
(For the details on the SSA’s requirements for legal blindness, see our article on disability benefits for partial or total blindness. For the SSA’s requirements on profound hearing loss, see our article on disability benefits for profound hearing loss or deafness.)