How We Decide If You Are Disabled

Information We Need About Your Work and Education

To decide whether you are disabled, we use a five-step process. (This will open another browser window.) Listed below are frequently asked questions about Step 4 and Step 5 of the process.

We need to find out about your past work to decide if you can still do it. To make this decision, we need to know how you did your job. We also need to know if you learned skills on your job.

We need this information to see if you can do any of your past work. Remember that you are not disabled according to our rules unless your illnesses, injuries or conditions prevent you from doing your past work or adjusting to other work.

Information about your education and training are also very important to us. If you cannot do your past work, we look at your age, education, training, and work experience to see if you can do other kinds of work.

 Disclaimer: The following is general information only. The Social Security Act and related regulations, rulings and case law should be used or cited as authority for the Social Security disability programs.


Step 4: Can you do the work you did previously?

What work activities can I do if I have a medical condition ?

If you have a medical condition(s) that affects your ability to work on a regular basis, but it is not as severe as any impairment described in the Listing of Impairments, we assess your “residual functional capacity” (RFC). This means we will look at all of the evidence we have and determine what you can still do, despite any limitations caused by your impairment(s) and related symptoms, such as pain and fatigue.

When we assess your remaining ability to do basic work-related activities, we look at how your medical condition(s) has affected your ability to:

  • Exert yourself physically for various work-related activities (such as sitting, standing, walking, lifting, carrying, pushing, pulling).
  • Do manipulative and postural activities (such as reaching, handling large objects, using your fingers, feeling, stooping, balancing, climbing stairs or ladders, kneeling, crouching, crawling).
  • Tolerate certain environmental conditions (such as temperature extremes, wetness, humidity, noise, hazardous working conditions like moving machinery or heights, dust, fumes, odors, gases, poor ventilation, vibrations).
  • See, hear, and speak.
  • Maintain concentration and attention at work.
  • Understand, remember and carry out instructions.
  • Respond appropriately to supervisors, co-workers, and usual work situations.
  • Cope with changes in the work setting.
How do you decide whether I can do my past work ?

We look at the demands of your recent past work and compare them with our assessment of your remaining ability to do basic work activities. We only look at your past work that we consider relevant. This usually means work that:

  • You did in the 15 years before we decide your case, and
  • Involved significant and productive physical or mental activities done (or intended) for pay or profit, and
  • You did long enough to learn how to do it.

If we decide the past work you did is relevant, we compare your capacity for work with:

  • How you actually did the past relevant work, and
  • How that work is generally done in the national economy.

In order to make these comparisons, we need a complete description of that work as you did it.

After we make the comparison(s):

  • If we decide you can still do your past work as you actually did it, we find that you are not disabled, or
  • If we decide you can do your past work as it is generally done in the national economy, we find that you are not disabled. (We use reliable sources of occupational information such as government publications to make this determination), or
  • If we decide you are not physically and mentally able to do any of your past relevant work, either as you did it or as it is generally done in the national economy, we go to step 5, the final step of our disability process.
What information do you need about my past work ?

We need the titles of all of your jobs in the past 15 years. We also need a description of the work you did. There are jobs with the same name but very different job duties. There are also jobs that have the same job duties but have different names. That is why a job title is not enough to describe your work.

We need information about the:

  • Main responsibilities of your job(s)
  • Main tasks you performed
  • Dates you worked (month and year)
  • Number of hours a day you worked per week
  • Rate of pay you received
  • Tools, machinery and equipment you used
  • Knowledge, skills and abilities your work required
  • Extent of supervision you had
  • Amount of independent judgment you used
  • Objects you had to lift and carry and how much they weighed
  • How much you had to sit, stand, walk, climb, stoop, kneel, crouch, crawl, balance
  • How you used your hands, arms and legs
  • Speaking, hearing and vision requirements of your job(s)
  • Environmental conditions of your workplace(s)

We also need to know about any requirements of your past job(s) that caused you to change how you did your work or that you could not meet because of your medical condition(s). For example:

  • Worked fewer hours,
  • Had help from coworkers,
  • Took sick days,
  • Had to leave your workstation frequently,
  • Had to rest during the workday more often than your normal breaks.

We want to know:

  • when your medical condition began to affect your work,
  • if you became unable to do your work because of your condition,
  • when you stopped working (if not working),
  • why you stopped working.
What happens if you do not get the information you need ?

It is your responsibility to see that we get the information we need to determine whether you are disabled. If you do not provide the information we need about your medical condition (s) and your work history, we may have insufficient evidence to evaluate your claim and have to find you not disabled.

What happens if you find I am able to do my past work, but I cannot get a job doing that work ?

We will find that you are not disabled. In our disability process, we evaluate your ability to do the physical and mental activities you were required to do in your past work. We do not consider whether you could get a job doing this work.

For example, we do not consider:

  • whether you would be hired,
  • whether a job opening exists,
  • whether you would be required to move,
  • whether you want to do this work,
  • whether you still have a certificate or license to do the past work.

Step 5: Can you do any other type of work?

What do you consider when you decide if I can adjust to other work ?

If we decide you cannot do the work you did before, we consider your remaining ability to do other work considering your age, education and work experience. We assess these factors with your capacity to work to determine if you can be expected to adjust to other work that exists in the national economy.

How do you consider education ?

We consider how many years of school you have completed and whether you have completed any type of special job training, trade or vocational school when we assess your ability to adjust to other work. However, absence of formal education does not necessarily mean you are uneducated or limited in your ability to adjust to work. We will consider strong evidence that your educational achievement is higher or lower than the last grade you completed.

We generally consider illiteracy and inability to communicate in English as an educational factor that limits an individual’s ability to adjust to other work.

How do you consider age ?

We consider your chronological age in combination with your residual functional capacity, education, and work experience. We will not consider your ability to adjust to other work on the basis of your age alone. In determining the extent to which age affects your ability to adjust to other work, we consider advancing age to be an increasingly limiting factor in your ability to make an adjustment to other work.

If you are a younger person (under age 50), we generally do not consider that your age will seriously affect your ability to adjust to other work. However, in some circumstances, we consider that persons aged 45-49 are more limited in their ability to adjust to other work than persons who have not attained age 45.

If you are closely approaching advanced age (age 50-54), we will consider that your age along with a severe impairment and limited work experience may seriously affect your ability to adjust to other work.

We consider that at advanced age (age 55 or older) age significantly affects your ability to adjust to other work. We have special rules for persons in this category who are closely approaching retirement age (age 60 and above).

How do you consider my work experience ?

When we consider your ability to adjust to work you have not done before, we consider your vocational factors of residual functional capacity, age, educational and past work experience.

For example, you may not be able to do the lifting required by your past work as an automobile mechanic. However, you may have the ability to adjust to other less strenuous work based on your residual functional capacity, age, education and past work experience. We may find that you could use your skills to be a carburetor mechanic, which is a less strenuous occupation.

How do you evaluate recent education that provides me skills I can use?

If you recently and successfully completed education or training that allows you to enter into a specific skilled or semiskilled occupation that you are physically and mentally able to do, we will find you are not disabled. For example, if you recently completed a formal program in which you gained the skills to become a chef and you are physically and mentally able to do that kind of work, we will find that you are not disabled.

How do you evaluate the effect of my age, education and work experience on my remaining capacity to work ?

In our regulations, we have tables of rules that we use as guides to evaluate how your age, education and work experience affect your remaining capacity for work.

For example, a person with the following vocational profile would be found disabled according to our tables of medical-vocational guidelines:

Capacity for work:

  • Can lift no more than 20 pounds for up to 1/3 of an 8-hour workday, and
  • Can lift up to 10 pounds for 2/3 of an 8-hour workday, and
  • Can stand and/or walk for about 6 or more hours in an 8-hour workday and
  • Has no other limitations

Age: 57

Education: High school education

Work Experience: No skills that can be transferred to work he is physically able to do.

However, if this individual had skills that could be used for work that is within his capacity and that exists in significant numbers in the national economy, we would find him not disabled.