Between 12,000 and 20,000 people will sustain spinal cord injuries this year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Another 200,000 people, including many Chicago residents, already live with these injuries. While recovery is possible after some spinal cord injuries, severe injuries may cause paralysis and other permanent complications. If a spinal cord injury significantly restricts a person’s daily functioning and ability to work, the victim may be eligible for Social Security Disability benefits.
Qualifying based on the injury
In the “Blue Book,” the Social Security Administration publishes a list of impairments that are considered disabling if they meet certain criteria. People with spinal cord injuries may qualify for SSD benefits by meeting the terms of two different impairment listings.
A spinal cord injury may meet the listing requirements for a disorder of the spine. Medical evidence must show that the injury affected the spinal cord and caused nerve root compression. This compression must also be evident through pain, limited mobility and muscle weakness or atrophy. Loss of reflexes and sensation must accompany the muscle weakness or atrophy.
A spinal cord injury that results in paralysis may qualify as a disabling condition under the impairment listing for spinal cord injury or nerve root lesion. The injury must cause impaired motor function in two extremities. This impaired function may manifest as paralysis, tremors, sensory loss or loss of coordination.
Seeking a medical-vocational allowance
A spinal cord injury may fail to meet the terms of either listing yet still prevent a person from working gainfully. If this is the case, the SSA evaluates the person’s Residual Functional Capacity, which is a measure of the person’s functional capabilities with the debilitating effects of the condition factored in. For victims of spinal cord injuries, such effects may include:
- Respiratory or circulatory issues
- Muscle constriction or loss of muscle tone
- Depression or chronic pain
- Health issues associated with a less active lifestyle
The SSA evaluates how all of these symptoms and effects might collectively limit a disabled individual from working. If the individual cannot reasonably perform any kind of work, the SSA awards benefits through a medical-vocational allowance. If an individual can still do certain types of work, the SSA considers whether performing the work is reasonable for the individual, based on non-medical factors.
The SSA may weigh a person’s age, educational level, work experience and applicable skills. The SSA does not award benefits if a person appears reasonably qualified for a job and capable of performing or adapting to the work. Thus, offering extensive information about personal background and work-related qualifications is essential for spinal cord injury victims who cannot meet the terms of a Blue Book impairment listing.
by Howard Ankin