What do the recent Social Security rule changes mean for disabled people?

A pictures of pens, paper, and a calculator - the Social Security Administration has made it more difficult for people with disabilities to be approved

The Social Security Administration has been making the application process harder for years

In mid-June of this year, the New York Times published a good article on the recent drop in applicants for Social Security disability benefits. While the article focuses primarily on the lowering application rates for the program, it also includes useful information on how the Social Security Administration has changed the system in ways that are designed to make accessing benefits more difficult for people with disabilities. These systemic changes include rules which limit the influence that a treating doctor has on the outcome of claim, “retraining” of judges who approve a greater number of claims, and limiting access to SSA staff and information by closing field offices.

What does this mean for claimants, and how does this change a person’s chances of getting approved?

Don’t give up! Claimants should be aware that there could be a long wait for an answer on each application. In many cases the process can take years, and there are several stages to move through, each with its own waiting period. It is more important than ever to make sure you have a well-prepared case. National averages for approval remain low, but here at TCNF, we are still winning the vast majority of the cases we bring to judges. Finding a good lawyer could be one of the most impactful steps you could take to increase your chances of being approved.

What does this mean for how the SSA decides claims?

The state of the national economy and its functioning relates directly to the way the SSA decides individual claims. Here’s how: if you have a disability and you are under age 55, you have to prove that, because of your condition and its symptoms, there are no jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that you can do. As you get older, the number of possible jobs the SSA considers as possibilities for you gets smaller. At hearings, the Vocational Expert (VE) is the one who gives evidence on the requirements of different jobs. Consequently, the VE—and the VE’s understanding of what various jobs require—can end up having a huge influence on your case.

As the recent New York Times article points out, employer behavior changes as the economy improves. Employers become more willing to hire or accommodate people who they would not have considered in a tighter labor market. In circumstances like this, it could become harder to win your case because of how employers’ standards change.

But we haven’t been seeing this happen in practice. This could be due to a shift in the approach taken by VEs. Older VEs have begun to age out. Older VEs tend to have a less claimant-friendly understanding of the economy because many of them worked in the field placing people in jobs during the 90s, at which point the economy was booming. But now younger VEs are being called to testify at disability hearings—VEs with ten years or less of experience who have worked only in the post-Great Recession economy. These younger VEs provide testimony that tends to be better for claimants because these VEs usually have a more accurate understanding of the current job landscape.


  • Don’t give up! Remember that the process will take a long time
  • Work with a good lawyer to make sure your case is as well-prepared as possible