The Social Security Administration (SSA), which administers the social security disability (SSD) program, estimates that the disability approval rate for SSD benefits is 36%. For those who appeal, 85% of the disability applications are denied following reconsideration, which is the first level of the appeals process.
That means for most disability applicants, an administrative appeal is their first real chance at having their disability application approved. Although the wait time for an administrative hearing is long – roughly 14.7 months in Illinois – the disability approval rate is much higher. An estimated 50% of SSD applications are approved following a disability hearing.
Although less formal than a traditional courtroom trial, the disability hearing is still an important part of the disability process. It is your first opportunity to explain, in person, how your disability or medical conditions limits your ability to work.
There are only three people who must be present at a disability hearing – the claimant (the person applying for SSD benefits); the administrative law judge, or ALJ, and; the court reporter. If the claimant hired a disability representative to help with the appeal, that representative may also be present. In some cases, the ALJ may request testimony from a medical or vocational expert, or allow the claimant to call witnesses who have firsthand information about your medical condition and its impact on your ability to perform everyday tasks, although this is rare.
Each person has a very specific role to play at the disability hearing. Understanding what they are can help alleviate your fears.
Claimant. As the claimant, your role at the disability hearing is to explain your medical condition to the ALJ and describe how it affects your ability to work. The judge may invite you to speak, allow your disability representative (if you have one) to ask questions, or may ask you questions himself – possibly even a combination of all three. It is your responsibility to answer the questions truthfully to help paint a clear picture of what you can and cannot do as a result of your disability.
Administrative law judge. The administrative law judge (ALJ) presides over the disability hearing and has discretion as to how the hearing is conducted. The ALJ is the only person who decides whether your disability application is approved – there is no jury. He can question you directly about your medical diagnosis and medical history, your work experience, and how your disability affects your ability to perform activities of daily living and other job-related tasks.
Because the ALJ has discretion over how the disability hearing is conducted, the process varies depending on the specific judge assigned to hear your claim. Some allow the claimant to call witnesses and request testimony from medical or vocational experts (more on them below). Others do not want to hear from anybody other than the claimant, basing their decision entirely on your testimony and medical record.
Use this judge search to learn about the ALJ assigned to your case.
Court reporter. The court reporter ensures that there is an accurate record of the disability hearing. They prepare a written transcript and create an audio recording of the hearing. Having an accurate transcript is important if the ALJ denies your claim and you decide to appeal because it allows the Appeals Council and/or the Federal District Court (the next two appellate levels) to review the case record and determine whether the ALJ’s decision was correct.
Disability representative. Although it is not necessary, many claimants choose to hire a disability representative to help with their SSD claim, particularly during the appeals process. This representative may be either a social security disability attorney or a disability advocate. A disability attorney and disability advocate are similar in that they help you present your case in the best light to increase the chance your application is approved. The main difference between the two is that unlike a disability attorney, a disability advocate does not have a law degree.
During the disability hearing, the disability representative may ask you questions designed to elicit information regarding your disability and how it affects your ability to work. They may also submit a written brief to the ALJ before the hearing. This brief explains why your SSD application should be approved by describing your medical condition and the limitations it imposes on your ability to work. The disability representative will also prep you for the disability hearing, by having you practice answering questions the ALJ is likely to ask (or that the representative will ask if the judge permits questioning). Practicing your answers beforehand not only helps calm your nerves by showing you what to expect at the disability hearing but also decreases the chance that you inadvertently say something that could hurt your case.
Medical expert. The medical expert, if called to testify by the ALJ, helps to provide an understanding of your medical condition and the functional limitations it imposes on you. The medical expert can also provide information on the typical progression of your disability and its potential future effects on your ability to work. All of this helps the ALJ determine the extent to which your disability interferes with your ability to work.
Vocational expert. The vocational expert helps the AL determine whether there is any work you can perform, taking into consideration your functional limitations, age, education, and work experience. Like the medical expert, the ALJ has discretion as to whether a vocational expert may testify.
Witnesses. It is very rare that witnesses other than the claimant, medical expert, or vocational expert are called to testify – typically no more than 5% of disability hearings involve other witnesses. If the ALJ permits the claimant to call witnesses, these are usually confined to their spouse or partner and/or their supervisor. These people are most likely to have helpful information regarding your medical condition and how it affects your ability to perform everyday activities and, more specifically, work-related tasks.
An experienced social security disability attorney can help you navigate the process and gather the appropriate information to best support your disability claim. Consider the Good Law Group for your representation – call (847) 577-4476.