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How to Answer Questions at a Disability Hearing

Written by
Jackie Jakab, Disability Attorney
Jackie Jakab
Lead Attorney
December 8, 2022  ·  8 min read

If you have an upcoming Social Security disability hearing, you might feel unsure about the kinds of questions you’ll be asked and how to answer.

To help you answer questions from the administrative law judge (ALJ), we’ve spoken with our team of lawyers and collected their best advice. We’ve also gathered examples and other resources you may want to read.

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7 tips for answering questions at a disability hearing

As you prepare for your disability hearing, it’s natural to feel nervous about what the judge will ask you. But there are some clear guidelines you can follow to give yourself the best chance of success.

So whether your disability hearing happens in person or over the phone, here are the top tips from our lawyers on how to answer questions at SSDI hearings:

  1. Only answer questions if someone asks you directly.

  2. Be specific.

  3. Don’t over-explain.

  4. Don’t exaggerate or minimize your symptoms.

  5. Answer based on how you feel most days.

  6. Stay consistent with the information in your application.

  7. Be polite.

1. Only answer questions if someone asks you directly

The judge and other people involved at a disability hearing will ask a lot of questions that you don’t need to answer. In fact, doing so could potentially hurt your case. But at some point, the judge will address you directly, like to ask about your health condition, daily activities, or job history.

In particular, the judge will probably ask several hypothetical questions to the vocational expert — someone who provides information about the physical and mental demands needed to perform different types of jobs. It’s tempting to respond to these questions because it may sound like they’re talking about you, but you don’t need to.

They aren’t about your case personally; they’re theoretical scenarios to help the judge understand what kind of work someone in a similar situation to you could possibly do.

A disability lawyer can better guide you on exactly which questions to answer but a good rule is to only answer questions that are directly for you.

2. Be specific

Your responses should always be as specific as possible. If you don’t give a specific answer, the ALJ may not understand how serious your disability really is.

For example, if the judge asks you how long you can walk and all you say is, “I can’t walk for long without taking a break,” they may assume that means you can still walk enough to handle daily chores like getting ready or grocery shopping. As another example, instead of saying you can always get where I need to go, give a more specific answer like, “I can’t drive myself and I need a cane to walk.”

How to avoid vague answers

To avoid vague answers, try to use specific time frames or activities to help the judge understand your limitations. For instance, say that you can’t stand and walk for longer than 15 minutes before your pain is too great.

Instead of just saying you make yourself dinner every night, explain that the only way you can comfortably make dinner for yourself is by heating up a microwave meal.

If you need assistance with certain tasks during the day — like if your children come over to help you do your shopping — tell the judge instead of just saying those things get done.

For more guidance, consider talking with a disability lawyer. They’ll know what questions you can expect and how you should answer them to increase your chances of winning benefits. Get connected with a disability lawyer for free today.

3. Don’t over-explain

Answer everything directly and be as succinct as possible. Some questions only require a “yes” or “no” response. If you do need to explain more, stick to a couple of sentences. If the judge wants further information, they’ll ask you.

Remember, the judge is only there to decide whether or not you meet the SSA criteria to get disability benefits. They don’t want or need to hear more about your personal life or opinions. Saying more could even hurt your claim.

For example, talking about how you go out with your friends but then saying you can't be in a crowd at work could seem contradictory to the judge.

When you describe your health conditions, stick to those that have been professionally diagnosed, that you’re actively being treated for, and that affect your ability to work. Don’t volunteer extraneous information about your life.

The following information is not relevant to the judge at your hearing:

  • How your disability impacts your personal life, social life, or family life

  • How your condition affects you mentally and emotionally

  • Your life story outside of the questions on the disability application

  • Whether you “deserve” benefits based on your character or background

4. Don’t exaggerate or minimize your symptoms

When you’re answering questions at your disability hearing, it’s essential to strike the right balance between not exaggerating your symptoms, but not minimizing them either. This is especially important when the judge asks you open-ended questions like, “Tell me why you can’t work.” 

You might be tempted to make your condition sound worse than it is to ensure the judge approves your benefits. But this could hurt your case if you don’t sound believable or if you say something that contradicts the information in your application.

Ultimately, be honest and be aware of what might sound like an exaggeration to someone else. As an example, don’t say your pain is constantly a 10/10 on the pain scale.

Even if it feels that way sometimes, it may sound like an exaggeration and the judge may not take it seriously. Instead, provide a more specific response — such as, “My pain is an 8/10 on my worst days, and is around 6/10 most days.”

It’s equally important not to minimize your symptoms. If you live with chronic illness or pain, you might be used to brushing it off and trying your best to go about your life. But the only way to receive benefits is to be honest about how restrictive your life has become due to your injury or illness.

Related: How to prepare for a judge’s questions at your disability hearing

5. Answer based on how you feel most days

Whenever you’re talking about your health or pain, explain how you feel most days — on your average or even worse days.

Maybe you’re feeling better than usual on the day of your hearing and you’re tempted to answer questions based on how you feel right then. Don’t do that or the judge may not see how severe your condition is every other day.

For example, if your pain today is a 2/10, but it’s closer to a 5/10 most days and a 7/10 on really bad days, answer every question based on when your pain is a 6/10.

6. Stay consistent with information in your application

It’s important that your answers are consistent during the whole application process. How you respond to questions at the hearing should match the information you wrote in your initial disability application and in other forms.

The judge at your hearing has access to all of the information in your application and they’ll be looking for inconsistencies in your testimony. So if you previously stated that you cannot drive due to pain, avoid telling the judge you drove yourself to the hearing.

Or maybe you said in your application that you can’t stand for more than 15 minutes. Don’t say to the judge that you just went grocery shopping by yourself.

If you gave detailed answers in your application forms, you can even restate the same information at your hearing. (Learn more about how to write strong answers for the function report and work history report.)

7. Be polite

The whole Social Security disability process is frustrating, but avoid insulting the judge or anyone else in the hearing. The judge is the one who decides whether or not to approve your benefits claim and it can help your case if you make a good impression. so as best as you can, show up on time, speak calmly, and answer politely.

How to get help with your SSDI hearing

Preparing for your disability hearing can be overwhelming. It’s important to follow the tips above, but you may still want more help. Maybe you’re just afraid of speaking at the hearing on your own.

The best way to get help with your hearing is by hiring a lawyer. A lawyer who works with Social Security disability will have the experience to guide you through your hearing.

They’ll get you prepared and can practice with you by asking sample questions. During the hearing, they’ll also handle as much as possible. For example, they can question the other experts so you don’t need to.

Here at Atticus, we have a deep network of vetted attorneys who can offer the help and support you deserve. Fill out our 2-minute quiz so we can learn more about your situation, and someone from our team will reach out to offer advice and match you with a lawyer if you want one. Our services are completely free and you’ll never need to pay the lawyer unless they win your case.

Don't face the hearing alone. Team up with a skilled disablity attorney.

Frequently asked questions about disability hearings

What is an SSI or SSDI hearing?

A hearing is one of the key stages of appeal for Social Security disability. You present your case to a judge who can approve your benefits on the spot. It’s important to do as well as you can in the hearing because this is the last stage of appeal for almost all applicants. You can appeal a hearing denial, but it’s difficult and your chances of winning are low.

Do I need a lawyer for a disability hearing?

You don’t technically need a lawyer, but a good lawyer greatly increases your chances of winning benefits at the hearing. They’ll know the best way to present your case, how to answer a judge’s questions, and what questions to ask the vocational expert.

What are the chances of winning a disability hearing?

Based on a 2023 analysis by Atticus, people win benefits at their hearing 54% of the time. That’s a much higher approval rate than initial application and reconsiderations. Having a lawyer also triples your chances of winning a hearing.

Can I have my disability hearing over the phone?

Since the pandemic, many disability hearings happen virtually over the phone instead of in-person. That also means you can have a lawyer from another state (and it’s common to do so) because they don’t have to travel to your local courthouse.

Are there any signs that I won or lost my disability hearing?

Honestly, it’s best to ask your lawyer because they’ll know how the hearing went and potentially how the judge viewed your claim. Otherwise, it’s tough to say that any one thing — like a judge asking many or not very many questions — is a sure sign that you won or lost.

How long after my hearing will I get a decision?

You should expect to wait one to three months after an SSI or SSDI hearing for a decision. Some decisions will go faster, though. Your lawyer will have a clearer answer based on how your case and how the hearing went.

How long after my hearing will I get my back pay?

Once you get a hearing decision, you should get your first disability payment soon or even immediately. That first check will include all your back pay. If you have a lawyer, their fee will also come out of the check automatically so you don’t have to worry about paying them yourself.

See what you qualify for

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Jackie Jakab, Disability Attorney

Jackie Jakab

Lead Attorney

Jackie Jakab is Atticus’s Legal Director. She’s a licensed attorney, a graduate of the University of Chicago Law School, and has counseled thousands of people seeking disability benefits.
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