Many people feel anxiety before their Social Security disability hearing. Disability benefits are often the last hope for people struggling with both financial difficulties and health problems. Some people expect the hearing to be formal and austere, like court room scenes from Law and Order. The truth, however, is that most hearings are somewhat informal, and the rules of evidence and procedure are much more relaxed than those in civil or criminal court.
There will be a few key people at the hearing: the administrative law judge, who conducts the hearing and makes the determination of disability; a hearing monitor, who handles paperwork, technology, and the electronic transcript of the proceedings; and often, but not always, a vocational expert, who advises the judge on matters such as the physical and mental requirements of certain jobs and other vocational issues. If a claimant is scheduled for a hearing in a remote location, the judge, hearing monitor and vocational expert may participate in the hearing via videoconference from a larger office.
It is helpful to think of the hearing as a discussion, rather than a test. While the hearing is a legal proceeding, there are very few formalities. The judge will ask the claimant and all experts to take an oath of truth, and will formally admit the evidence into the record. During much of the remainder of the hearing, however, the judge and the claimant’s attorney will ask the claimant questions about his/her physical and mental conditions, and how these conditions prevent him/her from returning to their past work or any other kind of work. This is not an inquisition: claimants should be truthful and forthcoming in their answers. Claimants should avoid exaggerating or, alternatively, minimizing their conditions and symptoms. The judge will want to know how claimants’ disabilities impact all aspects of their daily lives.
To prepare for these questions, claimants should think about their daily activities. Do you need assistance getting in or out of bed? Do you need help preparing food, bathing, brushing your teeth, or getting dressed? How long can you stand or sit in one position before you have to adjust because you are in pain or discomfort? Do you need to take frequent rest breaks while walking? Do you need to use the automatic scooter or lean on the cart when you go to the grocery store? What is the heaviest item that you can lift and/or carry without experiencing too much discomfort?
Claimants should also think about how their disabilities affect their cognitive abilities. Do you have trouble concentrating or paying attention to things for meaningful periods of time? Are you able to watch a 30-minute TV show without losing attention? What about an hour-long TV show? If you read, do you often need to re-read sections to remind yourself of what you just read? If you use a computer at home, how long do you spend on it, and what sorts of activities are you able to perform on the computer? Note that medications may cause many people to be drowsy or “loopy” during the day – think about how these side effects impact your daily life.
Finally, consider your social and family activities. Do you go to parties or movies? Are you able to visit shopping malls or be in large crowds of people? Are there days when you don’t leave the house? If so, how often during the week or during the month do you never leave the house?
Thinking about answers to these questions should prepare claimants for most of the questions that the judge will have at the Social Security disability hearing. Obviously, the judge will also want to know about the details of claimants’ past work, and about the progress of their medical treatment. The most important things claimants should remember are to tell the truth, to not leave anything out, and to be open about the struggles they are facing.