How Hearing Loss Can Qualify for Disability Benefits
July 28, 2023 · 6 min read
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Hearing loss can qualify you for disability benefits from the Social Security Administration (SSA) if your condition prevents you from working. That said, qualifying with hearing loss is challenging in most cases and you'll generally need permanent, profound hearing loss in both ears. You can also qualify with cochlear implants.
To help you understand if your hearing loss may allow you to qualify, we’ll cover how the SSA defines hearing loss, criteria you'll need to meet, and next steps you can take.
Is hearing loss a disability?
Yes, hearing loss is considered a disability according to the SSA. This means that if you can prove you're unable to work due to your hearing loss, you may qualify for disability benefits.
How the SSA defines hearing loss
Hearing loss does appear in the SSA Blue Book, under the category of Special Senses and Speech impairments. In addition to just an impaired ability to hear, the SSA recognizes that individuals who suffer from hearing loss may experience symptoms like:
Difficulty aurally recognizing words
Tinnitus, or ringing in the ears
Common types of hearing loss
It's possible for hearing loss to affect both ears or just one ear. Which type a person experiences depends on where the damage within the hearing system occurred. Hearing loss is generally divided into three main types depending on the portion of the hearing system involved:
Conductive: This is hearing loss that involves either the middle or outer ear, such as something blocking sound from passing through. Surgery or medication can often help with conductive hearing loss, making it harder to qualify for disability.
Sensorineural: This type of hearing loss involves the inner ear and tends to be permanent in nature, though hearing aids and other assistive devices can help. It's often caused by aging, diseases, loud noises, head injuries, infection, or trauma during birth.
Mixed: This is a mix of both of the above types of hearing loss. It can be caused by an inherited condition, head injury, or infection, and it may require treatments used for both conductive and sensorineural hearing loss.
Beyond the three major types listed above, there are also subcategories of hearing loss. For example, cookie bite hearing loss is a type of sensorineural hearing loss that impacts mid-range frequencies in the range of 500 to 2,000 Hz. Qualifying with any type of partial hearing loss is challenging.
You can get disability benefits for hearing loss if it leaves you unable to work, but the average hearing loss experienced with older age doesn’t qualify. Temporary hearing loss also won’t qualify since it's necessary to have a condition for at least one full year to be eligible for disability benefits.
You can qualify if you're fully deaf in both ears. Qualifying if you’re mostly or even fully deaf in just one ear will depend on whether you can demonstrate that you're unable to do any jobs because of your condition.
For those who have received cochlear implants, you can automatically qualify for disability benefits. Just keep in mind that you'll need to test again after one year to show the SSA that your hearing is still bad enough to require continued benefits.
You can more easily qualify for disability benefits if you have another condition alongside your hearing loss. For instance, in older people, conditions such as diabetes can contribute to hearing loss. An inner ear issue known as Meniere's disease may also accompany hearing loss.
Criteria for getting disability with hearing loss
The disability criteria for hearing loss differ depending on whether or not you have cochlear implants.
With cochlear implants
It's much easier to qualify for Social Security disability benefits with cochlear implants. In this case, you are automatically considered under a disability for one year after the cochlear implants are put in.
After that year, you will get retested. To requalify, you must score 60% or less on a word recognition test.
Without cochlear implants
To receive Social Security disability benefits without cochlear implants, you'll need to provide medical records pointing to the impairment causing your hearing loss and the severity of your condition. You’ll also need to undergo a number of tests.
Here are the requirements that the SSA lays out in the Blue Book for individuals who do not have cochlear implants:
Necessary medical evidence
Medical evidence required by the SSA:
Proof of a "medically determinable" impairment causing your hearing loss
Measurements of the severity of your hearing loss
An ontologic examination performed by either a licensed physician or an audiologist that includes your medical history, a description of the appearance of your external ears, an evaluation of your tympanic membranes, and an assessment of any abnormalities within the middle ear
Any additional information relevant to your hearing, including from outside the test setting
To qualify, you need to receive the following test results on one of these two tests:
Pure tone air conduction and bone conduction testing: For pure air conduction, your average hearing threshold sensitivity must be 90 decibels (dB) or worse in the ear in which you can hear better. The threshold for bone conduction is 60 dB or worse in your better ear. Your hearing loss is determined by calculating the average of your hearing at 500 hertz (Hz), 1,000 Hz, and 2,000 Hz.
Word recognition test: In this test, you must not be able to repeat more than 40% of the monosyllabic words off the standardized list.
Testing must be done separately on each ear. The testing must also be performed by or conducted under the direct supervision of a licensed audiologist or an otolaryngologist and conducted in a sound-treated room or a room that otherwise meets the American National Standards Institute's standards. Hearing aids cannot be worn during the testing.
Further, the person conducting the testing must do an otoscopic examination directly before they do the audiometric testing. This exam must show there weren't any conditions that would prevent valid testing, such as an ear infection or an obstruction in the ear canal.
The doctor must also report on any other factors that could impact the accuracy of the test results, like whether you were cooperative during testing.
Questions to ask yourself before applying
If you have hearing loss without cochlear implants, ask yourself the following questions before applying for Social Security disability benefits. If you can answer 'yes' to all or most of them, then your condition has a good chance of qualifying you for disability benefits.
Are you fully deaf in both ears?
Has your hearing loss persisted for at least one full year?
Have you been examined by a licensed physician or audiologist to determine the cause of your hearing loss?
Have you undergone any testing, such as pure tone air conduction testing, bone conduction testing, or word recognition testing?
Is your hearing loss severe enough to prevent you from doing any type of job, even with accommodations?
If you still feel like you'd benefit from further guidance on your situation, consider taking the Atticus Social Security disability quiz. Should your results indicate you may qualify for disability benefits, an Atticus team member will get in touch to find out more about your situation. You can also get matched with a disability lawyer. Getting matched is free, and you won't owe any money until after you win your disability benefits case.
What type of benefits should I apply for?
There are two types of Social Security disability benefits from the federal government you might apply for: Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) and Supplemental Security Income (SSI). Both programs provide support to those who can't work due to disability, and they also include health insurance — Medicare for SSDI and Medicaid for SSI.
Where the programs differ is in who can receive benefits. SSDI is for individuals who have worked and paid taxes for at least 10 years. SSI is for people who haven't worked much (if at all) and who have low income (around $900 per month or less) and few savings or other assets.
The average monthly check for all Social Security disability recipients in 2023 is $1,483. The SSA doesn't have payment data specific to hearing loss, but disability benefits for similar conditions is $1,361.97 per month.
However, it's possible to receive more or less than that for your hearing loss. The maximum possible monthly benefit in 2023 is $3,627 for SSDI and $914 for SSI. These apply regardless of which condition you have or how many conditions you end up using to qualify for disability benefits.
Ultimately, the amount you receive for SSDI will depend on your work and income history, whereas SSI is calculated based on your current income.
What if my hearing loss doesn’t meet the criteria?
After reviewing the criteria outlined in this article, you may realize that your hearing loss doesn't quite meet the SSA requirements. Even so, you still have the option of moving forward with a disability benefits application. As long as you're truthful on your application, there’s no harm in applying.
Just understand that you will need to demonstrate through testing and medical records that your hearing loss prevents you from working.
The application process is also challenging regardless. Only about 20% of people who apply for disability benefits find success on their first attempt. Persistence pays off when it comes to the application though. You can appeal your initial denial, and the chances of winning an appeal are significantly better.
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