The Importance of Activity Limitations in Social Security Disability Cases

residual functional capacityOn the Clauson Law web site, we included a section called “the Disability Standard” so that you would understand how Social Security defines the concept of disability.  Social Security defines disability in terms of your capacity for work – the definition provides that you are disabled if you are unable to perform substantial activity because of a medically determinable condition or conditions that has lasted or is expected to last 12 consecutive months or result in death.

When I ask my clients why they think that they are disabled, however, most answer by telling me about their medical problems and how lousy they feel all of the time.  When I ask  how their medical condition affects their ability to handle household chores, they often say things like “I can’t stand too long” or “if I walk any length of time, my leg starts to hurt.”

While answers like this are appropriate for conversations, they will not help you win your Social Security disability case.   Why?  Because you will only be approved for disability if you can convince the judge that your medical condition prevents you from performing the physical and mental tasks of simple, entry level jobs.

Your medical condition is almost secondary in a Social Security disability case.  You could have 3 herniated discs, carpel tunnel syndrome, reduced kidney function and schizophrenia, but you will not win unless you can convince the judge that the symptoms of your various medical problems would create reliability problems in the workplace.

Judges in most cases will use a form called a “residual functional capacity form” to evaluate your capacity to perform specific physical and mental activities.  For example the judge might ask you how long you think you can stand.  If you answer “not very long” you are not giving him information he can use.  “Not very long could mean 5 minutes or 2 hours.”

A better answer would be “after 10 minutes my right knee starts to ache and I need to lean on a chair or counter to support myself.  After 15 minutes, the pain in my back becomes so intense that I need to sit down.”   If a judge believes you with this answer, he will eliminate from consideration any job in the economy that requires more than 10 minutes of standing.  If you keep adding limitations to your work capacity profile (limitations on sitting, lifting, crouching, crawling, bending, stooping, etc.) eventually you will eliminate every job in the national economy.

Therefore, as you pursue your claim for disability, start to think about your medical problems in terms of the physical or mental activity limitations that arise from those problems.  Prior to your hearing, you and I will practice answering with specific replies – minutes, pounds, etc. so that you can speak to the judge in the language that he understands.


Vaughn Clauson is a US Air Force veteran, and an experienced disability attorney. Vaughn is a board certified specialist in Social Security disability law and has dedicated his career to representing the disabled. Vaughn and his associates have represented thousands of clients, and have experience with any type of disability claim.

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