I’m Illiterate. Can I Get Social Security Disability Benefits?

Disability Benefits

An inability to read or write can undoubtedly make it more challenging to find work. But that’s a reality for the 21% of U.S. adults who are illiterate.

Because of their lack of reading and writing skills, many illiterate adults find themselves in jobs requiring more physical labor. As age sets in, however, it can become even more difficult to sustain that type of work. Especially as the body starts to show the natural wear and tear that comes with additional years.

But is illiteracy considered enough of a reason to apply for disability benefits? We had a reader recently ask us such a question: “Can my husband get disability because of his education? He can’t spell, read, or write. I know it’s strange to be illiterate as an adult in America, and he has always worked physical labor jobs. He sometimes brings home a paper application for me to fill out for him. But it’s becoming harder as he gets older. He stopped going to school after 6th grade. Thanks!”

The answer to this question is no, her husband cannot get disability simply because of his lack of education. However, yes, it is possible that her husband’s illiteracy and age could factor into his ability to get benefits. Let’s explore.

How Does Social Security Define Illiterate?

The first thing to clarify here is how the Social Security Administration (SSA) defines illiteracy.

If a claimant completes at least the 4th grade, the SSA says it’s generally appropriate to consider them literate. However, if evidence shows that the applicant cannot read or write a simple message in any language, then they’re illiterate. This is regardless of what grade they were in before leaving school. And it also excludes being able to sign their name.

When determining if an individual is unable to read or write, examples of relevant evidence may include:

  • Records that show long-term special education for difficulties with learning to read or write at a basic level.
  • Limitations in the applicant’s work history owing to their illiteracy.
  • Supporting documentation from a valid intelligence test showing the claimant cannot read or write a simple message.
  • Valid reading/writing test results showing the individual’s lack of literacy.

This is not an exhaustive list, meaning that the SSA may also consider other evidence as well. Additionally, they will not rely just on test results and may require applicants to demonstrate their limitations in multiple ways.

How Does the SSA View Educational Level in Relation to Being Illiterate?

It’s also important to note that the SSA divides education into the following categories:

  • Illiterate — Less than a 4th grade education.
  • Marginal — Formal schooling through 6th grade (or less) in any country.
  • Limited — Formal education at the 7th through 11th grade level in any country.
  • High school and above — Formal schooling through the 12th grade (and above) in any country, or a GED equivalent.

The SSA considers education when examining disability claims for people who fall in the Illiterate, Marginal, or Limited categories. This is because minimal education may affect an individual’s ability to find other appropriate work.

However, these guidelines don’t mean a person automatically gets illiterate status if they have less than a 4th grade education. The SSA recognizes that formal education is not the only way a person can learn to read and write. As a result, they will also look at how long ago the applicant was in school, hobbies, test scores, and other activities.

Ultimately all these things put together will determine if the SSA decides a person is truly illiterate by their definition.

When is Being Unable to Read or Write Considered a Disabling Condition?

On its own, being illiterate is not what the SSA considers to be a medical condition. It considers it an educational level. Therefore, anyone applying for Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) or Supplemental Security Income (SSI) cannot claim illiteracy as their only reason.

However, that doesn’t mean being illiterate is irrelevant when filing a disability application. That’s because when an individual applies for benefits, the SSA will first look for a long-term medical condition. If there is an illness or injury that meets the SSA’s definition of disability, then the applicant may readily qualify.

If, however, there isn’t a condition that meet’s the SSA’s strict “Blue Book” disability description, then they’ll consider other criteria. This means that the applicant is looking to qualify through the Medical Vocational Allowance (MVA) option.

When applying under the MVA contingency, the SSA will again review all medical records for disabling conditions. But then they will also look at the person’s skills to see what work an applicant can still reasonably do. This is an individual’s Residual Functional Capacity (RFC).

Remember that to qualify for disability benefits, an individual must show that they are unable to work for 12 months. So, in assessing an applicant’s RFC, they will look to see if the individual can still perform some work. Additionally, a claim examiner will examine the type of work the applicant has done for the past 15 years. This is where advancing age and being illiterate may actually enhance a person’s chance of getting benefits.

When Can Being Illiterate Help You Get Disability Benefits?

To qualify for disability benefits, an applicant must first show enough past work and evidence of paying into Social Security. If they meet the work history, financial requirement, and can show a medical impairment, the SSA will consider the claim.

When a person suffers from one or more medical conditions that restrict work ability, the SSA looks at RFC. This means, the SSA wants to know what a person could still do as far as working.

When assessing an individual’s “vocational profile” — meaning the types of other jobs they might be able to perform — illiteracy matters. This is because the SSA looks at transferable skills when considering alternate employment possibilities. If someone is illiterate and older (over age 45) the SSA will likely assume it’s harder to find work.

Additionally, medical-vocational determinations are more likely to go to individuals over the age of 50. In fact, the older you are the more likely you are to qualify for disability benefits using the MVA. This is because the SSA considers that older people are less likely to adapt to a new type of job.

So, in the case of our reader’s question, we don’t know her husband’s exact age or medical condition. But since she said he’s getting older, it’s possible his age and illiterate status could help his disability application. 

While illiteracy itself doesn’t qualify for disability benefits, it may factor in for applicants who meet the other financial and medical requirements.

For individuals whose medical condition doesn’t automatically garner them disabled status, then applying through the MVA is an option. In those cases, illiteracy along with advancing age and lessening RFC might lead to a successful claim. However, proving all the necessary elements will not be easy.

That’s why meeting with a Social Security attorney is a really smart idea. In cases like this, the applicant will have to show evidence of their health problems, work history, and lack of education. If one piece is insufficient the SSA will not award benefits.

However, a skilled disability lawyer knows how to prepare for all these tests and can guide you through the process. Plus, people who have lawyers are 3x more likely to get a positive result.

Set yourself up to have the best chance of success and schedule a free phone call today.

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Kimberly Dawn Neumann is a multi-published NYC-based magazine and book writer whose work has appeared in a wide variety of publications ranging from Forbes toCosmopolitan. She graduated summa cum laude from the University of Maryland, College of Journalism. For more, visit:www.KDNeumann.com, Instagram @dancerscribe, and Twitter/X @KimberlyNeumann.