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Why Activities of Daily Living are so Important to your Social Security Disability Claim

When you pursue disability benefits, you will be asked to fill out numerous forms by Social Security. You will find that many of these forms are repetitive – they seem to ask for the same information over and over.

Having spent a good deal of time with SSA’s forms (I wrote a book about how to fill them out properly), my guess is that this redundancy arises from the overall dysfunction at the Social Security Administration. Someone, in some far away office somewhere in the country, was given the assignment of heading up a team to update SSA’s disability forms. Government agencies rarely simplify anything so this nameless bureaucrat and his/her comrades no doubt spent months changing the format and the fonts, and adding questions to the forms.

Since there are only so many ways to ask you for an explanation why you believe you are disabled, the new forms ask for the same information 5 or 6 different ways.

With a few exceptions discussed below, I am not convinced that anyone with any decision making power actually reads your responses to these forms but you have to fill them out.

I advise clients and potential clients to fill out the forms with as much specificity as possible. Avoid “not very much” or “not very far,” and try to be very clear about your capacity using minutes or hours, or feet, yards or miles.

Social Security Decision Makers do Study Your Activities of Daily Living

One set of questions that does get read has to do with your activities of daily living. This kind of makes sense if you think about it. Social Security defines disability in terms of how your medical or mental health problem impacts your capacity for simple, entry-level work.

Since you are not now working and probably have not worked for the past 2 or 3 years, the only way for a judge to evaluate what might happen if you were to try to go to work is to understand what you are able to do every day around your house.

If your activities of daily living are too robust and reflect and active and high functioning lifestyle, the judge will likely conclude that you have the capacity to perform the tasks at a simple, entry-level job.

Consider the following which comes from an unfavorable hearing decision that was sent to me to review for a possible appeal. In this case, the judge was considering the limitations of a man who had experienced a traumatic brain injury as a child and who now claims that his capacity to function has become so impaired that he cannot work. The judge writes the following about his activities of daily living:

In interacting with others, the claimant has a mild limitation. A function report completed by a friend that the claimant lived with reports her helped her by walking her dogs during the day. She noted that the claimant talked to friends during the day. The claimant reported he socialized with family twice per week.

With regard to concentrating, persisting or maintaining pace, the claimant has a moderate limitation. The claimant was able to watch television, perform household chores such as laundry, ironing, vacuuming and played video games. He shopped in stores for groceries, clothes and things as needed at the time.

As you can see, the judge puts great emphasis on the claimant’s testimony about his daily activities as well as statements from his girlfriend about what he does during the day. Presumably the judge assumes that a person who can be counted on to walk dogs, manage the laundry and shopping and play video games would also have the capacity to perform simple work like packing items in a box or taking tickets at a movie theater.

What can you learn from this claimant’s experience? When you fill out SSA’s disability forms or when you testify about your day to day activities at a hearing, be prepared to explain why your daily activities are not consistent with “substantial gainful activity” or work-like activity. For example, if you make the beds but it takes you 2 hours to do so, this activity is not consistent with work. If you shop for groceries but only late at night when few people are at the store and you have to use a motorized cart, that is different than simply “shopping for groceries.”

Assume that any question asked by Social Security on its forms, or by a judge at your hearing is focused on your work capacity. Practice answering these questions with your lawyer and do not treat these activities of daily living questions as unimportant filler questions.

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