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Does a Low IQ Qualify Someone for Social Security Benefits?

 Posted on February 07, 2019 in Social Security Disability Medical Conditions

IL disability lawyerIntellectual disabilities often prevent a person from working full-time. But when assessing mental impairments for purposes of awarding Social Security disability benefits, agency officials are often reluctant to conclude that an applicant is incapable of work. In many cases, a Social Security administrative law judge (ALJ) will conclude, even in the face of substantial evidence, that a mentally impaired applicant is still capable of performing some degree of meaningful work.

Court: SSI Applicant Retained “Adaptive Functioning” to Work Despite Mental Impairment

Consider this recent decision by the U.S. Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals here in Chicago, Johnson v. Berryhill. The plaintiff, a man in his late 30s, was first diagnosed with learning problems during elementary school. In 1988, a psychologist assessed the plaintiffs IQ at 73, which was considered “very low.” Subsequent IQ tests produced similar results. Indeed, when the plaintiff first applied for Social Security benefits in 2006, a new IQ test produced a full-scale score of 65.

In practical terms, the plaintiff is illiterate. He cannot read, spell, or write. He is capable of driving a car, although his illiteracy prevents him from passing the necessary exams to obtain a driver's license. And he is capable of performing basic everyday tasks, such as dressing himself and playing sports.

In 2013, the plaintiff again applied for supplemental security income (SSI) benefits. SSI is a program administered by Social Security. It is similar to disability insurance (SSDI) in that it provides cash benefits to individuals who qualify as legally disabled. But while SSDI is only available to people with a prior work history–and therefore paid into the disability insurance system–SSI is a purely means-tested program with no work requirements.

A Social Security ALJ determined that, in spite of the plaintiff's “severe” intellectual limitations as an adult, he still retained the “residual functional capacity to perform medium work with simple and repetitive tasks and superficial or occasional interaction with others.” In other words, although the plaintiff was developmentally disabled and lacked any prior work history, he was not disabled since he could still theoretically hold down a job as a janitor or dishwasher.

The plaintiff's appeal, which ultimately went up to the Seventh Circuit, challenged the ALJ's finding that he did not qualify as “intellectually disabled” under the then-applicable Social Security regulations. The plaintiff's appeal focused on two points. First, he argued the ALJ improperly ignored the result of a 1992 diagnostic test that showed him “three standard deviations below the mean” for intellectual disability. Second, he said the ALJ ignored medical evidence that he “lacked adaptive functioning,” which was necessary for him to retain the capacity to work.

The Seventh Circuit rejected both arguments. Regarding the diagnostic test, the Court said that while the ALJ did not specifically discuss the 1992 test score, he did take into account other test scores and evidence of disability. And in any event, a single score from 1992 was “not conclusive evidence” of present-day “adaptive behavior deficits.”

As to the second point, the Court said that none of the evidence actually presented to the ALJ proved the plaintiff “lacked adaptive functioning.” The plaintiff has a low IQ, but in and of itself that does not prove he is unable to work. And in fact, one of the doctors who testified before the ALJ expressly stated the plaintiff could perform “simple repetitive tasks and have occasional contact with others,” which mirrored the ALJ's ultimate conclusions.

Speak with a Cook County Disability Lawyer Today

If you, or someone in your family, suffers from an intellectual disability that affects their ability to work, you need to consult with an experienced Chicago Social Security attorney who can help you assess a possible claim for SSDI or SSI benefits. Contact Pearson Disability Law, LLC, at 312-999-0999 today to schedule a free, no-obligation consultation.




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