It can be one of the hardest decisions in life.  A physical or mental illness is limiting your life, including the ability to work and make a living.  Many eventually come to ask these questions:

“Should I file a claim for social security disability?”

“Will I qualify for social security disability?”

These can feel like very difficult questions to answer.  No one plans for or expects illness or injury in life that effects their ability to work.  Surely those considering disability need the opinion of “experts” such as disability lawyers and doctors, right?  Shouldn’t you ask the question of the professionals first?

No.  Not without asking yourself some hard questions first.

When someone asks me if they should file for social security disability, I “invert” the question, starting with a consideration of what the alternative to social security disability for the questioner would be, as follows:

“If you don’t file for social security disability, what will you do?”

Why is this question important?  Because it brings the question back to your opinion.  It forces you to examine what you know about yourself and your condition.  For example, if someone says that if they did not file for social security disability they would go back to work, this tells me one important fact: they don’t really believe that they are unable to work.  On the other hand, if they tell me that if they cannot get social security disability they will have to sell their house and live in a homeless shelter, I know that they believe they cannot work – because no one would choose to do that.

But what about the opinions of others, like family, disability lawyers, clinic or hospital staff or doctors – don’t they count for something?  Yes, these opinions may be one of the many factors you consider, but realize that the “experts” have a fundamentally different point of view:

  • Disability lawyers and especially large national disability firm may be looking at you through the lens of their business objectives. Your question “do I qualify for social security disability” is likely translated by the firm that makes a living handling disability cases to this question only: “do we have a decent chance of winning this case?”
  • Medical professionals – particularly public hospital and mental health clinics -are interested in your qualification for social security disability so you will get Medicare or Medicaid.
  • Your friends and family may just feel sorry for you and want you to get some money coming in the door.

The most important opinion on whether you can or cannot work is YOU.  You might not be an expert on social security disability law but you are the world’s greatest expert on your abilities, your pain, and your body.  Listen carefully to yourself first.

Most Americans have seldom worked with or hired attorneys – much less social security disability lawyers, since filing for social security disability is (usually) a one-time thing.  Most people though do know that disability cases often end up in a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge, and that disability lawyers are paid on a contingent fee basis.

So its easy to see social security disability lawyers as being like personal injury or trial lawyers.  When looking for a disability lawyer they assume they need an aggressive, confrontational and tenacious “pit-bull” of a lawyer to demand social security award the benefits they deserve.

Nothing could be further from the truth.  A social security disability hearing is not adversarial – there is no attorney for the government that will be arguing against your claim.

A good social security disability lawyer, however, will do a lot to assist you.  She will collect and review the medical records, she will seek a concise and coherent statement from your doctor, and prepare you for the ALJ hearing by helping you focus on what is important to winning your case.  But leave the “junk yard dog”, “I’ll hammer and hammer” lawyer to car wrecks.

This is one of the many social security disability paradoxes.  While the social security administration personnel routinely tells disability applicants that they “can work” while waiting for social security disability approval if the monthly wage is under the “substantial gainful activity” amount, I believe any work activity prior to disability approval is unwise.  And I believe that participating in vocational rehabilitation is good.  For many, this can seem inconsistent: you mean “training” for work is good, but actually working is bad?  In a word, “Yes”.  Part-time work below the substantial gainful activity threshold raises this concern in the judge’s mind: is this person just keeping their work activity  “under the radar” to get disability benefits?  Participating in vocational rehabilitation tell the administrative law judge that you are trying to better yourself and exploring options beyond being on disability the rest of your life.

Social Security disability applicants are in a world of hurt not just physically and emotionally, but also financially.  All good social security disability lawyers know that medical treatment – ongoing and consistent – is key to winning.  But most of us disability lawyers are reluctant to tell you in frank and stark turns that it is simply indispensable.

Persons with medical insurance through their employer are typically afforded the right to continue to be covered under the employer medical plan under COBRA.  And just as typically, most persons who just lost their job can ill afford the high COBRA premiums required to stay insured.  Accessing indigent care medical care is humiliating and a rude awakening for those accustomed to high-quality medical care.

Eliminating other major family expenses to pay for medical insurance is equally humiliating, and we disability attorneys have a hard time telling our clients they need to sell that second car, send their spouse to work, or downsize their home in order to keep their medical insurance.  But the sad fact is that you must make those painful choices if you expect to win your disability case.  Look at it this way: your wife can quit that job, and you can buy a second car once you win your social security benefits.

The struggle for social security disability benefits and the horrible economic privation without a paycheck can make it feel like all will be well once the disability comes through.  But life on social security disability is no bed of roses.  The social security disability benefit is meager, an average of $1,197, and a maximum $2,788.  Disability beneficiaries are subject to periodic reviews which can result in termination of benefits if social security can prove that you have improved sufficient to return to work.  Because a disability cessation does not involve a potential back benefit payment, you will not be able to hire an attorney on a contingent basis like you did when you won your disability (i.e., you are going to have to come out of pocket to pay a lawyer).  Getting a job after years on disability, with an eroded job history and skill set, is a major challenge.

This is perhaps the biggest paradox in the strange process of securing social security disability benefits.  Your disability lawyer knows it, but she is reluctant to tell you this simple fact:

You may be trying too hard.

Maybe you are checking case status every 2 weeks.  Scouring the internet for tips on how to win your disability case.  Trying to educate social security about your condition by providing pages of explanation or reference materials you think will help them understand just how sick you are.

There is a simple concept called the law of “reversed effort”. Two influential philosophical writers, Aldous Huxley and Alan Watts, have noticed this phenomenon occurs when conscious will is applied to achieve results.  Sometimes if one is to apply more conscious effort in hopes of increased results, he will run into diminishing returns for his effort.  More effort does not equate to better results.

It is hard for your disability lawyer to tell you to “lighten up” for because it seems patronizing and insensitive: “doesn’t she realize how important winning my disability is?”

But the reality is that your obsessive efforts to convince social security that you are disabled can have the opposite effect.  Thorough and comprehensive efforts to persuade the government you cannot work such as long narratives belie an energy level on your part that seems inconsistent with being disabled.

It is particularly hard for your lawyer to tell you this because she is worried you will think she intends to take a lackadaisical approach to your case.  But there are points in your long road to disability benefits where philosopher Watts words are well taken:

“Muddy water is best cleared by leaving it alone” Alan Watts

I have been handling only social security disability only since 1991 – and I screen my own phone calls.  I have heard countless Texans tell me their disability problems, and I am struck with how often people focus on the hardship they have endured.  They speak of having to sell their house, or worse, mortgage foreclosure.  They speak of how long they have worked and paid “into” social security.  They relate stories of social security administration foot-dragging, losing paperwork, or sending them to see doctors.  This is certainly understandable, but unfortunately is not what is at issue in a social security disability case.

I sometimes see this same emphasis on the economic hardship and the unfairness of the situation repeated in administrative law judge hearings – despite my pre-hearing coaching to the contrary  So am I saying that social security does not care if you are in foreclosure because I cannot work?  They don’t consider that you have worked all your life?

Not exactly.

I am saying that the most important issue in your social security disability claim is whether you meet the legal definition under the Social Security Act for disability.  But social security disability lawyers can find it hard to tell their clients that, as difficult and sad as you economic situation may be, it is not going to be what the administrative law judge bases her decision on.

Bad things sometimes happen to good people.  All disability lawyers have lost cases for claimants who should have been approved.  No one can control what a social security disability Administrative Law Judge decides. You can drive yourself bats thinking “if-only” the administrative law judge had this evidence or that evidence the result would have been different.  But with most cases there is no reason to think that any individual item of evidence would change the decision of the administrative law judge.

We social security disability lawyers are accustomed to clients anxiously asking “What are my chances of winning?”.  We are often cautious in our response because the last thing we want to hear is a client saying “I thought you said I was going to win?”.

Despite the widely understood belief that “social security disability is hard to get” you are likely to be approved if you are truly disabled.  Don’t be discouraged by the statistics showing that about half of those going to an administrative law judge hearing are denied.  That “denied half” includes those with alcohol and drug addiction claiming they have “dual diagnosis” mental problems, or mothers seeking SSI for a child simply because he has a hard time paying attention in class.  They are not you!

Many years ago I took a taxicab from the airport on the way to a disability hearing in Houston. The taxi driver was friendly and talkative, and when she found out that I was on the way to a disability hearing, she told me about how she had applied for disability several years ago and was denied by an Administrative Law Judge.  She said she had to give up on her disability claim, and started driving a taxi.

“Well, do you like driving a taxi?” I said. She responded that she loved it.  For this lady I am sure that the disability denial several years prior at the time felt like a disaster.  But for her it may have been a blessing in disguise.

It is also possible in most cases to refile a claim for disability. There are new medical treatments and procedures coming out every day that might get you back to health and work.

Your disability lawyer doesn’t want to tell you this because she fears you might view it as a sign she is not going to try her best to win your disability claim.  Not winning your disability case is bad, I know. But don’t assume it is a catastrophe from which you will never recover.