From 1978 through April 26, 2020, the Social Security Administration considered a Social Security disability applicant’s English proficiency when deciding whether the applicant could work.

Limited English Proficiency BookletOn April 27, 2020, that rule changed.

What hasn’t changed is that the Social Security Administration has strict Social Security disability eligibility criteria that must be met before you can receive Social Security disability benefits.

SSDI English Proficiency 1978 – April 26, 2020

There is more than one way to qualify for Social Security disability benefits. The Social Security Administration follows a five-step process to determine eligibility, which goes as follows:

  • Step 1: Determine whether the applicant is doing any substantial gainful activity
  • Step 2: Determine whether the applicant has one or more severe medical impairments
  • Step 3: Determine if the applicant’s impairment meets or is medically equivalent to one or more of the requirements in the Listing of Impairments
  • Step 4: If this step is applicable, then the agency will consider whether the applicant can still do the work that he did before he was disabled
  • Step 5: If this step is applicable, then the agency will consider whether the applicant can do any other work given his residual functional capacity, age, education, and work experience. It is only at this stage that English proficiency would be considered as part of the education review.

Education, and other things such as work experience and age, are only considered if you do not meet the criteria in one of the listings. In these types of cases, the Social Security Administration considers your medical diagnosis, work experience, education, and age to decide whether you can return to any type of work, whether that is the work you did before you became hurt or sick or a different type of work.

From 1978 through most of April of 2020, the Social Security Administration considered a person’s English proficiency when reviewing a person’s education for Social Security disability eligibility purposes. While limited English proficiency was never considered a disability, the ability to speak, understand, read, and write in English was considered as part of an applicant’s education, particularly for applicants age 45 and older.

SSDI English Proficiency – The Current Rule

Recently, the Social Security Administration changed its rule regarding English proficiency for Social Security disability applicants. Here’s how the change developed:

  • In 2015, the Social Security Administration’s Inspector General requested that the agency look at whether English proficiency was still an appropriate consideration in Social Security disability eligibility cases.
  • Research was done regarding the impact of English proficiency in the workplace. According to Social Security Administrator Andrew Saul, current research shows that the ability to communicate in English is no longer a good measure of a person’s education or ability to work.
  • The Social Security Administration updated its rules to reflect that research and the agency will no longer consider English proficiency as part of a disability applicant’s education or in any other way. The new rule was proposed in February 2019, published in the Federal Register on February 25, 2020, and effective as of April 27, 2020. It applies to any decisions made by the Social Security Administration on or after April 27, regardless of when you filed your disability application.

The new rule has critics. For example, the group Justice in Aging alleges that the Social Security Administration didn’t provide enough evidence to support its change in policy. Regardless of the criticism, however, the new rule regarding English proficiency went into effect on April 27, 2020.

Be Prepared Before You File a Social Security Disability Application

You don’t need to know how you qualify for Social Security disability when you contact Keefe Disability Law. All you need to know is that you have an illness or injury that prevents you from working. Our experienced Social Security disability lawyers will evaluate every aspect of your claim and file the strongest possible Social Security disability application on your behalf.

Are You Looking for a Social Security Disability Attorney in Boston, MA?

If you are looking to apply for social security disability, you need to speak with an experienced social security disability lawyer as soon as possible. Please contact us online or call our Natick Office directly at 508.283.5500 to schedule your free consultation.


John L. Keefe
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Founding Attorney, Massachusetts Social Security Disability Lawyer
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