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b2ap3_thumbnail_illiterate_20200213-163419_1.jpgIt may surprise you to learn that roughly one in five American adults struggle with basic literacy. This is according to figures published by the U.S. Department of Education's National Center for Education Statistics. Specifically, this group representing approximately 20 percent of adults “have difficulty” with completing tasks that involve “comparing and contrasting information, paraphrasing, or making low-level inferences.” Now you may be wondering if illiteracy qualifies a person for Social Security disability benefits. The short answer is no; the mere fact a person has little or no literacy skills is not considered a disability as such. But for applicants between the ages of 45 and 54, Social Security will consider illiteracy as a factor in favor of awarding disability benefits.

Magistrate: Social Security “Failed to Properly Evaluate” Disability Applicant's Illiteracy

Of course, that assumes the applicant can demonstrate they are, in fact, illiterate. Social Security officials often have difficulty taking illiteracy claims at face value. And in some cases, this difficulty crosses the line into simply ignoring the available evidence.

A recent decision from an Illinois federal magistrate judge, Kenneth S. v. Saul, provides a useful illustration of what we are talking about. The plaintiff in this case filed for disability benefits at the age of 47, alleging a number of physical impairments related to his back, neck, shoulder, and hip. The plaintiff informed Social Security he was illiterate, but managed to work as a production laborer at a syrup factory for over 20 years thanks to a “benevolent employer.”

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IL benefits attorneyEven if you have a physical or mental impairment that qualifies you for Social Security disability, the government will cease paying those benefits if you reach “medical improvement.” In other words, if a doctor determines your impairments no longer prevent you from working, Social Security will find you no longer qualify as legally disabled. In some cases, Social Security may even determine you have already reached medical improvement by the time it considers your disability benefits application.

Federal Court Finds Social Security Officials Improper “Playing Doctor” Once Again

But as with all such determinations, Social Security must rely on the actual medical evidence presented. Agency officials are not supposed to engage in conjecture or render their own non-expert medical findings. Yet we continue to see cases where Social Security administrative law judges improperly “play doctor,” particularly in situations where a disability applicant has a difficult-to-diagnose impairment.

Consider this recent case, Brown v. Saul. The plaintiff in this case suffers from hand tremors. In part due to this impairment, the plaintiff applied for disability benefits in 2014. Following a hearing in 2016, an ALJ determined the plaintiff was disabled–but only for the period between March 2014 and July 2015. After July 2015, the ALJ found the plaintiff achieved medical improvement because he “did not suffer from tremors after that point.”

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IL disability lawyerThere are situations where Social Security may award disability benefits but fix a different onset date than alleged by the applicant. The alleged onset date is basically the day you became unable to work due to your physical or mental impairments. This date is important because, under Social Security regulations, a successful applicant can claim up to 12 months of retroactive benefits from the date of their application.

In other words, let's say Mary filed for disability benefits in January 2018 with an alleged onset date of June 2017. If Social Security subsequently grants the application and agrees with the onset date, Mary would be entitled to retroactive benefits starting in November 2017, or five months after the alleged onset date. (Social Security imposes a five-month waiting period for all disability benefits.)

Magistrate Finds Social Security's Reasons Unclear for Disagreeing with Plaintiff's Alleged Onset Date

If Social Security grants your application but disagrees with your alleged onset date, you can appeal the latter decision. Social Security must then show why it determined the applicant did not become legally disabled until a different date than alleged.

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