Important: We updated this article in March 2023 to make sure all info below is both current and correct. Over 1.8 million people in the United States applied for disability benefits in 2021, but only 572,000 were successful. That means less than 32% of applicants saying they’re unable to work met the Social Security Administration’s definition of disability. That’s because your health issue alone doesn’t automatically qualify you for benefits. In reality, the SSA looks for 1) your functionality, 2) whether you have enough work credits, and 3) if you’re already getting some Social Security benefits.
What Is Functionality — and Why Does It Matter?
Your health diagnosis is important. However, it’s also not the biggest consideration in approving or denying your claim. The #1 reason claims get approved or denied is simple: Has your functionality at work changed due to your health? You could say that the SSA is obsessed with functionality and the role it plays in evaluating disability claims. In plain English, the SSA wants to see how well you function on a daily basis — that’s your functionality level, both at home and at work.
Your Disability Determination Services (DDS) examiner needs to know whether you can function well enough to perform job duties at work. And if you can’t continue at your current job, how long before you can work 40 hours per week somewhere else? If your doctor expects you to improve in less than a year, then the SSA automatically denies you benefits. But let’s say your health keeps you from working 12 months in a row at your current job. Then, the SSA wants to see if you can function in a similar job with easier tasks. They’re looking for evidence you can’t function at work for 40 hours a week, specifically for health reasons.
Everyone deals with pain and their health issues differently. Even if two people have the same injury or illness, some naturally cope better or worse than others. What keeps you from working may not stop others from “substantial gainful activity” (i.e., earning enough wages to support yourself). That’s why it’s crucial to properly show your limitations to the SSA in your application using language they’ll clearly understand. If you’ve been denied benefits before, it may be time to apply again using tips we’ll share below. This time, explain clearly how much your health issue(s) reduces your day-to-day functionality, both at home and at work.
How to Explain Your Current Functionality Limits Clearly On Your Application
Use Adult Function Form SSA-3373-BK to explain your current functionality level. Always be sure to answer every question and only provide honest answers. Important: Do not leave any fields or answers on this form blank when you’re filling it out! If you do, your claim may automatically get turned down for benefits, even if those questions don’t apply to you. Here is what the SSA will ask you:
- How do your illnesses, injuries, or conditions limit your ability to work?
- Describe what you do from the time you wake up until you go to bed.
- Do you take care of anyone else such as a wife, husband, children, grandchildren, parents, friend, etc.?
- What could you do before your health problems started that you can’t do now?
Remember, tasks you do at home may also sound like job descriptions, such as cooking, cleaning, child care, errands, etc. So if you can do those activities at home daily without help, you may also perform similar tasks at work.
5 Functionality Report Tips That May Help You Get Benefits
Want to improve your chances for benefit approval? Follow these five tips when filling out your functionality form to boost your approval odds:
Tip #1: Be honest about your current functionality limits, both on the form and with yourself.
Maybe you can’t pick something up off the floor without help, or stand for very long without serious pain. The SSA needs to know what things you used to do for eight hours a day but can’t do now. You need to admit how much your health issue(s) hurt your daily functionality before you answer any questions.
Tip #2: Avoid using words like “never,” “always,” and “definitely” when talking about your health issues.
Instead, tell the SSA how your condition makes you do things differently than you did before your diagnosis. How do your symptoms limit your functionality (pain, flexibility, strength, ability to see, hear, etc.)? If you can do something for an hour without pain, can you keep doing it for 40 hours every week?
For example: If you’re a bus driver with whiplash, can you turn your head to look both left and right? If whiplash makes it painful to look both ways at intersections, then it also limits your job functionality as a bus driver.
Tip #3: Be careful listing daily activities you do now that sound like they could be work tasks or job descriptions.
Maybe the pain medication you’re on makes you feel dizzy or upsets your stomach. So, you can’t drive or walk around for a few hours without feeling nauseated or falling down. Just because you can walk to and from the kitchen doesn’t mean you can go back to waiting tables at work. Not sure what your actual functionality limits are? Put this form aside for one week and keep a symptom diary instead. On day 8, read through your notes and reference them while completing your functionality report.
Tip #4: Make sure your answers are short, consistent, and match what your doctor says about your functionality limits.
If your doctor says you can’t lift more than five pounds, are you still picking up your three-year-old grandson? Maybe your doctor says your head injury makes it hard for you to concentrate eight hours at work. Telling the SSA you like reading makes it sound like you’re able to pay attention better than your doctor expects. Make sure you don’t tell the SSA you can do more than your doctor says you can, especially without help. You may feel like writing detailed notes explaining how hard your life is now compared to before. But for this functionality form, you really just need short, consistent answers. Giving too much information doesn’t help your case and could actually hurt your application for benefits.
Tip #5: Have a friend or relative that knows you well review all your functionality form answers when you’re done.
People who know and love you may notice changes in your functionality levels that you don’t realize yourself. For example: Maybe you walk with a limp now, or stopped reading the paper every morning after your car accident. Things you don’t even notice may prove that your functionality started going down right after your health problems began. Besides, some states may mail you another form that asks you to list a contact person. Make sure you put down someone who’s familiar with any changes in your functionality level on a daily basis. A partner, caregiver, or close neighbor is a better contact person than someone who doesn’t see you often (i.e., landlord).
Understanding the Difference Between Mental and Physical Functionality
Functionality isn’t just about what you physically can or cannot do — and not all symptoms keep you from working. Physical functionality explains how well you can do the following:
- Get around without using a support device or asking another person to help you
- Stoop or kneel down
- Lift objects
- Perform activities using your body (fold laundry, put away dishes, cook food, shower, etc.)
Many people with physical limitations can still do some basic job tasks, like light office work while sitting down. Mental functionality is how the SSA measures your ability to:
- Stay focused on assigned work tasks until they’re done
- Adapt to new job duties, situations, or changes to your work schedule
- Follow directions (both written and verbal)
- Interact with others at work in a professional manner
If you have a mental condition, your functionality limits are likely different than someone with a physical injury or illness. Questions about your mental functionality can help the SSA figure out how your health limits your ability to work, including:
- How well do you handle stress? (You may not perform well in customer service-related jobs if you have anxiety or PTSD, for example.)
- Have you ever been fired or laid off because of not getting along with other people? (Again, be honest when answering this question. This is strictly to see if you can work in certain positions based on your experience and skill set.)
- How well do you follow written or spoken instructions? For example: If you had a stroke, you may have trouble remembering things. But if you’re dyslexic, you may do better in jobs where your supervisor leaves a voicemail explaining your work schedule.
Whatever your condition, the SSA will consider your specific functionality limits when reviewing your claim.
How to Answer Functionality Questions at Your Appeals Hearing
The SSA looks at disability applications all day, every day. That makes them excellent at spotting inconsistencies between what you say at your appeal hearing and in your claim paperwork. If you’re asked to attend an appeal hearing, you need to come prepared to answer questions about your current functionality. This is because an administrative law judge (ALJ) will refer to your adult functionality report often during this hearing. Your judge will ask, “Are you able to generally take care of yourself?” and “Do you prepare your own food/meals?” If you say “yes” but your functionality report says you can’t dress or feed yourself, the judge will notice this. They may ask why you said you cannot do these daily tasks, especially if you do them now. You’ll likely lose your case if the judge thinks you lied in your functionality report or during your appeals hearing.
Anytime your daily activities change because your health improves or gets worse, update your functionality report! Your ability to perform everyday tasks can get better or decline over time. That’s especially true when you see the doctor often for regular treatments. So when you do notice any changes, file a new functionality report with the SSA prior to your ALJ hearing.
Other Documents That Can Prove Functionality Limits Based on Disability
For a rock-solid case, consider submitting other documents along with your functionality report. The best, most convincing evidence for your claim will come from an acceptable medical source. Here are a few you can request from your healthcare provider that should strengthen your SSD claim:
- Physical RFC (Residual Functional Capacity) forms.
- Mental RFC (Residual Functional Capacity) forms.
- Doctor’s letter of support (specifically explaining any changes in your functionality since your health problem(s) began).
- Medical records (specifically those that discuss changes to your functionality).
- Medical equipment you may depend on daily (i.e., cane, hearing aids).
- Psychiatric evaluations, if applicable.
- Evaluations from a licensed doctor or therapist.
- Assessments in functionality changes from case workers, social workers, or vocational experts.
Get Free Expert Claim Help At Home
If the SSA initially denied your claim, look for any inconsistencies in your functionality report and your application answers. When the reason isn’t clear, ask a Social Security lawyer to review your paperwork. And if you haven’t yet applied, a lawyer can help you complete your application and file it free of charge. If the SSA doesn’t award you benefits, then you owe $0 for expert legal assistance. But if you do get benefits, then you’ll only owe one small fee.
Want to speak with a local expert and get free expert SSD claim help? Click the button below to sign up for a free phone call during normal business hours:
Lori Polemenakos is Director of Consumer Content and SEO strategist for LeadingResponse, a legal marketing company. An award-winning journalist, writer and editor based in Dallas, Texas, she's produced articles for major brands such as Match.com, Yahoo!, MSN, AOL, Xfinity, Mail.com, and edited several published books. Since 2016, she's published hundreds of articles about Social Security disability, workers' compensation, veterans' benefits, personal injury, mass tort, auto accident claims, bankruptcy, employment law and other related legal issues.