If your disability benefits claim was denied and you’re getting ready for an SSDI hearing, it’s helpful to understand who will be in the room. Your hearing will consist of more than just the judge, yourself, and potentially a lawyer. There will be other professionals involved, including a vocational expert (VE) who talks about jobs you may be able to do.
Let’s walk through what to expect from a vocational expert at a Social Security disability hearing.
What is a vocational expert?
A vocational expert provides information to the judge at a disability hearing about the skills and mental or physical demands needed to perform various jobs. They also consider the characteristics of different work settings, which jobs exist in the national or your local economy, plus transferable skills you may have gained from past jobs.
Vocational experts may be licensed professional counselors or work in similar positions that make them authorities in the labor market.
Why Social Security has vocational experts
The Social Security Administration (SSA) uses the testimony of a vocational expert to better understand which jobs someone applying for disability benefits may be able to do.
Social Security does pay the VE a fee for their testimony, but the vocational expert is considered a “neutral witness” because they do not work for Social Security. They’re impartial and don’t have a vested interest in the outcome of your claim.
It’s also important to know that a vocational expert does not know you personally. They will not test you or evaluate you. In fact, they aren’t allowed to comment on medical matters or answer questions about your specific abilities or limitations.
What a vocational expert does at an SSDI hearing
A vocational expert’s job is to answer questions from the judge about how a certain set of limitations could translate into the workplace. At your disability hearing, the vocational expert will do two key things:
Classify your past work according to a government dictionary of job descriptions
Answer a series of hypothetical questions from the administrative law judge
Classifying your past work
First, the VE will look at your work history. They consider jobs you’ve done in the last 15 years and that you held for long enough to become skilled at.
Vocational experts classify your work by identifying the job from the Dictionary of Occupational Titles (DOT) that most closely matches yours. The DOT is a document created by the U.S. Department of Labor that defines over 13,000 different types of work.
Answering hypothetical questions
Next, the VE will answer hypothetical questions asked by the judge. These questions help the judge evaluate what kind of work you could hypothetically do.
Since qualifying for SSDI or SSI requires that you’re unable to work, the judge will ask the vocational expert if they believe someone with your health conditions or limitations could do the type of work that you’ve said you can’t do. If they believe someone could, it may result in the judge denying your claim. (A good disability lawyer will know how to refute the VE’s testimony. Learn more about how a disability lawyer can help your appeal.)
If the vocational expert says you can’t work at these hypothetical jobs, the judge will ask a broader questions like, “Are there any other jobs that exist in the national economy that a person with those limitations could perform?” At this point a vocational expert may come up with more obscure jobs, saying you could hypothetically work in one of these positions.
Remember, the VE is not talking about you personally. Their job is only to answer questions about a hypothetical person with similar limitations to yours, so the judge can make a decision on your case.
Does the ALJ always agree with the vocational expert?
The administrative law judge makes the final decision to accept or deny your disability claim, and the ALJ doesn’t always agree with the vocational expert. Even if the VE says you could hypothetically work, it’s still possible to convince the judge to approve your claim. A lawyer can really help here because they know how to counter the testimony of the VE.
The judge will ultimately make their decision by considering the vocational expert’s opinion, your personal testimony, the medical information in your file, and all other evidence that you or lawyer have presented.
The vocational expert’s testimony is often confusing or frustrating for disability applicants. The VE will mostly talk in job codes instead of actual titles, and the discussion o your limitations can sound very technical. The hypotheticals and their answers can also make it seem like the VE or judge believe you can do work that you don’t think you can do.
The best way to prepare for the VE testimony is to work with an experienced lawyer because they understand the vocational expert’s jargon and know how to refute their answers if necessary.
If you have a lawyer, they will likely schedule a call or meeting with you a week or two before your hearing. During this time, your lawyer will go over the hearing details — who’s there, what will happen, what you need to do, and how you can prepare. Your lawyer will be present for the hearing, and if you have any questions about what the VE is going to do at the hearing, your lawyer will explain.
Should you ask the vocational expert questions?
If you have a lawyer, you won’t interact with the vocational expert at your hearing. Your lawyer will ask questions if needed. This is extremely helpful because a lawyer will understand the technical language a VE uses and which jobs the VE is saying you may be able to do.
If you are representing yourself at your hearing and the vocational expert says you can do jobs that you don’t think you can do, you might want to ask questions. In this case, you’re looking to challenge their testimony — to show that you either can’t handle the physical or mental duties required for those jobs, or that you don’t have the necessary skills for that job.
The SSA considers jobs based on the Dictionary of Occupational Titles, so consider reading more into those jobs and their expected duties. However, the DOT isn't the easiest to parse and some jobs may be a bit dated, so we recommend working with an experience lawyers for your hearing.
Disability applicants with lawyers are three times more likely to win their case. Lawyers experts on the process, which can make everything easier for you to navigate. For example, they will know how and when to interact with the vocational expert at your SSDI hearing.
Atticus offers a deep network of vetted attorneys who can help you through the disability process. We can provide free legal advice and match you with a qualified lawyer — all at no cost to you. Take our short disability quiz and we’ll reach out to get more information about your situation.
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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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