It’s a common story: you become disabled, you apply for Social Security Disability (SSD) benefits, and your claim is denied. Most people are denied at this stage, so it is important not to get discouraged. You have 60 days from the date you receive your denial to submit your request for reconsideration. If you are denied again, file your appeal to have a hearing in front of an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ). Many people succeed at the hearing level, so it is important to put your best foot forward and prepare diligently for your time in front of the ALJ to increase your chances of getting your disability claim approved.
Before we explore your winning strategy at your SSD hearing, please strongly consider hiring an experienced SSD attorney to represent your interests. You likely only have one shot at winning your disability appeal, and SSD attorneys have years of experience with the process and with the various ALJs involved in SSD disability appeals. He or she can guide you through the process from application to (hopefully) approved claim. SSD requires adherence to strict timelines, rules, and regulations, and your attorney can stay on top of everything so that you can concentrate on more important things like your testimony.
The first secret to winning your disability hearing is to stay calm. Don’t let your nerves get the better of you—disability hearings are more relaxed court proceedings, and they usually only last between 45 minutes to an hour. The portion of the hearing during which you’ll testify rarely takes more than 30 minutes. And the only lawyer there will be yours. Social Security Administration (SSA) does not send someone to question you; in fact, most of the questions that you answer will come from your own attorney.
It is important to keep in mind that the SSD hearing is about the subject you know best. Your disability and how it affects your life is something you contend with every, single day. The better you know yourself, the more likely you are to win your disability appeal. And the best thing you can do to make the case that you deserve SSD disability benefits is to prepare. The more you prepare, the more your nerves will be kept at bay. It is easy to become embarrassed when explaining the things that are wrong with you, but try not to be. The ALJs have seen and heard just about everything, and the ALJ is only there to determine whether you qualify to receive disability benefits, not to judge you or your life.
When you answer questions at your disability hearing, stay focused and on topic. If you ramble and drone on, the ALJ will stop paying attention to you, and he or she is more likely to miss important things that you say. And, in a worst-case scenario, the ALJ might even get irritated with you for wasting his or her time. A judge who doesn’t like you will be disinclined to approve your disability benefits. Practice answering questions with your attorney ahead of time so that you know what to expect and how to keep your answers succinct. If you notice your answer has gone off the rails, stop, take a deep breath, and continue.
Be as specific and descriptive with your answers as possible. Remember, the disability hearing is your best opportunity to paint a clear picture of your daily life that might have been lost on paper in your application. If you are asked to describe your symptoms, for example, don’t just say: “I can’t go one day without being in lots of pain.” Instead, say: “I suffer pain on a daily basis. Although the intensity of the pain varies throughout the day, performing normal tasks like showering and getting dressed makes my knee pain unbearable. After any physical activity, I have to sit down and rest for 10-15 minutes, and even then, the pain doesn’t go away completely.” Describe the location of any pain, and don’t be vague about how your disability limits you. If you rely on help from others because of your condition, make sure the ALJ knows that, too, and consider asking a friend or family member who is well-acquainted with your situation to write a letter to the judge or be a witness for you at the hearing.
Explain any gaps in your medical history and address facts that might make you look bad. If you didn’t see a doctor for three years because you didn’t have insurance, or your symptoms improved so you stopped getting treatment for your disability, tell the judge that. You will underscore your credibility if you are honest in explaining your situation.
Additionally, remember that winning your SSD hearing requires complete honesty. It is not the time to be proud or exaggerate. If you hide the challenges that your disability causes you, the ALJ will not think that you qualify for SSD disability benefits. And the ALJs are experienced at assessing people’s credibility. If you exaggerate your symptoms or describe your disability in absolutes (“always,” “never”) when that’s not actually true, the ALJ will know you are not telling the truth.
Lastly, your best chance of winning your disability hearing is to present yourself in a positive light. You’re already going to do that in your testimony and the clear, insightful answers you provide to the questions you’re asked, but your appearance and demeanor matter as well. You don’t have to wear a suit to your hearing, but dress cleanly and appropriately. Be respectful and polite throughout the SSD hearing, and even if you get frustrated with the judge, reiterate your position calmly and do not express frustration or be rude to him or her.