Man in therapy for ataxia"Ataxia" is an umbrella term used for a group of neurological conditions that affect balance, movement, and coordination. People with ataxia often have clumsy voluntary movements, which can make things like walking, speaking, swallowing, eye movements, and fine motor skills difficult – and as progressive disorders, the symptoms of ataxia tend to worsen over time. 

If you can no longer work due to ataxia or the condition prevents substantial gainful activity, you may qualify for Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI). Here's what you need to know about obtaining benefits, including how an attorney can help you navigate the complicated disability claims process and determine whether your application is eligible for an expedited review via the Social Security Administration's (SSA) Compassionate Allowance program.

Understanding Ataxia 

Ataxia happens as a result of damage to the cerebellum, the part of the brain responsible for coordinating muscle movement, or the connections between the cerebellum and the brain stem. This damage – and the resulting ataxia – can be caused by external factors, such as trauma, infections, cancers, alcohol or drugs, or vitamin deficiencies; multiple system atrophy; or inheriting one of the more than 30 gene mutations linked to the condition. In some cases, ataxia is idiopathic, meaning that doctors cannot determine its cause. 

The symptoms associated with ataxia can vary depending on the type of the disorder. However, people suffering from ataxia can appear clumsy or even drunk due to symptoms like slurred speech, decreased coordination, impaired balance, trouble walking, muscle tremors, involuntary eye movements, and loss of fine motor skills. Ataxia can also cause heart and vision problems.

Types of Ataxia That Qualify for Compassionate Allowance Expedited Processing

  • Friedreich's Ataxia (FRDA). An inherited neurodegenerative disease, FRDA causes progressive nervous system damage and symptoms such as muscle weakness, foot deformities, scoliosis, shortness of breath, speech issues, and heart problems. The SSA uses criteria found in its Blue Book Listing of Impairments when determining eligibility for benefits; FRDA is addressed in Section 11.17, which covers neurological disorders.
  • Spinocerebellar Ataxia (SCA). This group of genetic disorders progressively damages the areas of the brain that controls the movement of the eyes, arms, hands, and legs, resulting in speech, fine motor, and gait difficulties, as well as abnormal eye movements. SCA is also addressed in Section 11.17 of the Blue Book.
  • Ataxia Telangiectasia (AT). Caused by a rare gene mutation, AT is an inherited neurological disease that causes the part of the brain that controls speech and motor movements to break down. People with the condition are sensitive to X-rays or gamma-rays, often have a weakened immune system, and are particularly susceptible to developing cancer and recurrent respiratory infections.

Applying for SSDI

If you have one of the above types of ataxia, you don't have to do anything special to apply for a Compassionate Allowance; just complete and submit a standard application for SSDI benefits. Have a form that doesn't qualify for expedited processing, such as episodic ataxia or gluten ataxia? You may still be eligible for benefits if you can show that your type is equally impairing as a qualifying ataxia disorder. Regardless of whether you're trying to meet or equal a Blue Book listing, providing sufficient medical evidence for the severity of your illness from acceptable medical sources is vital.

Examples of Helpful Medical Evidence for Ataxia

  • MRI results can help confirm damage to the cerebellum or other brain structures or reveal treatable causes of ataxia like benign tumors or blood clots.
  • Blood tests show whether your ataxia might be caused by an underlying issue, such as a stroke, infection, or tumor.
  • Genetic testing can help confirm – or rule out – an inherited form of ataxia.
  • Lumbar punctures (spinal taps) test cerebrospinal fluid removed from between two vertebrae in the lower back to look for causes of ataxia. 

Applying for SSDI? Take Advantage of Skilled Legal Guidance 

Completing an application may sound simple enough, but the SSDI application process is notoriously difficult. The majority of applicants are denied in the initial stage – often due to mistakes in the application paperwork or a lack of supporting medical evidence. Don't risk a denial. Contact Keefe Disability Law online or call our Boston office at 508-283-5500 (toll-free 888-904-6847) to schedule an appointment for a free initial consultation.

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 888.904.6847 to schedule your free consultation.


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