A Social Security Disability (SSD) hearing with an administrative law judge (ALJ) is a major event in the SSD claim process. Anyone who is scheduled for such a hearing has already had their disability claim denied and has waited months for this meeting with an official who has the power to overrule the previous denials of their claim.
Disability Attorney Scott London and his entire team of professional disability advocates know how important the SSD hearing is to you and your family. To ensure that every claimant we work with is fully prepared to make the best of this opportunity to help the administrative law judge rule in their favor. This blog post highlights some of the ways an SSD claimant can get ready to win their SSD hearing before the ALJ.
What is a Social Security Disability Hearing?
A hearing with a Social Security Disability administrative law judge is the first time that an SSD claimant will be speaking directly to a person about their disability claim in detail. Up until the time of an SSD hearing, all the disability claimant’s communication with the Social Security Administration were limited to document exchanges.
The benefit of the person-to-person hearing, even if conducted through remote teleconference, is the ability for the judge to relate to the claimant as a person, an individual with a life that is challenged every day because of the impairments the judge will consider. The judge will be able to ask direct questions and hear immediate responses, both from the applicant and from their disability advocate or attorney.
By the end of the hearing, which can run anywhere from 25 to 90 minutes on average, there should be no unanswered questions and no confusion about the nature or the severity of the claimant’s impairments, their work history, or the ways in which the impairment interferes with their performance and experience of everyday activities.
Preparing for Your Disability Hearing
Your best chance to win your disability hearing is by preparing in advance. Your disability advocate or your attorney can meet with you to run through the questions the judge is likely to ask, review dates and major developments in your case history to refresh your memory, and you can practice answer questions about how you feel when you do particular activities, what you can do with difficulty, and what is too painful for you to even attempt.
This is also the time to review the contents of your entire disability package to ensure that the file is complete, that nothing the administrative law judge needs is missing that might delay the hearing or prevent you from winning the benefits you deserve.
What to Say During Your Disability Hearing (and What Not to Say)
Answering simple questions about your own case seems like it would be an easy task. But for some people, it is much more difficult than they imagine it will be. Despite the best efforts of both your attorney and the hearing judge to reassure you, you will be nervous. You’ve waited a long time for this important hearing and anxiety is natural. During times of heightened anxiety, you can forget key facts, jumble dates, or even give unnecessary information that was not invited, and which harms your case.
1. Think Before You Answer Each Question. Answering too quickly can result in several negative consequences:
- I. You may begin to answer before you’ve heard the complete question.
- II. You may have misunderstood the question. Repeat the question to yourself in your mind before answering.
- III. Reflexive or automatic answers can hurt your disability claim.
One of the most common examples of a reflexive answer harming your chances of success occurs when someone you meet says, “Hi. How are you?” Your instinctive answer is “I’m fine,” or some variation of that sentiment. (“I’m very well, how are you?” or “I’m doing great.”)
Answering such a question in a disability hearing setting is a contradiction of your claim. Would your reflexive, “I’m fine” be understood to be just that, a common polite answer not meant to convey your health condition? Probably. But don’t say it anyway. Think before answering questions.
2. Don’t Be a Hero — Don’t Minimize Your Pain or Weakness. Part of our American culture encourages us to be tough, strong, and not to whine or be perceived as weak. This cultural pressure comes up during disability hearings.
- A. Minimizing your experience of pain implies that you are not as impaired as a person with “real” pain.
- B. Describing your difficulty as “kind of hard to do (a task)” sounds like you are hedging, that you’re not convinced yourself that you are disabled.
- C. Downplaying any experience of your impairment defeats the purpose for which you are having the hearing.
- D. Don’t be afraid to express appropriate emotion! The pain you’ve endured and the worry your family lives with are justifiable reasons for sadness, depression, and disappointment. Those realities mean something to you. It’s ok to show the ALJ how deeply your impairment has hurt you in ways that can’t be measured.
3. Let Your Disability Attorney or Advocate Answer Hypothetical Questions. During the hearing, an ALJ may ask you a question like, “If a desk job opened up, would you be able to accept it?” Your professional disability advocate or disability lawyer will answer that question with references to your medial records, your doctor’s findings, and concrete “evidence” that the ALJ will consider.
The claimant who answers that question might cite reasons that Social Security rejects as valid answers: