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What Is Disability Determination Services (DDS)?

Written by
Jackie Jakab, Disability Attorney
Jackie Jakab
Lead Attorney
February 13, 2023  ·  3 min read
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The DDS, or Disability Determination Services, is a branch of Social Security that plays a big role in the disability application process. The staff at the DDS help make the initial decision on whether or not you will receive Social Security disability benefits.

It’s helpful to understand what they do and how they come to this decision so you can submit an application that’s as strong as possible.


What is Disability Determination Services?

Disability Determination Services (DDS) is a network of Social Security agencies in each state. These agencies receive your disability application, find medical evidence, and decide whether they think you are disabled under the law. 


What does DDS do?

When you submit an application for disability benefits, this application goes to Social Security representatives, who verify basic information such as your age and employment status. Next, these representatives send your application to the DDS so they can evaluate your disability. 

Who works at Disability Determination Services?

People who work at the DDS include:

  • Disability examiners

  • Examiner trainees

  • Vocational specialists

  • Medical consultants

  • Administrative, clerical, and quality review

What will DDS ask my doctor?

The DDS will reach out to your medical sources, such as your doctor(s) or your hospital, to get evidence for your case. They’ll ask your doctors:

  • What medical condition you have

  • When your medical condition began

  • How your medical condition limits your activities

  • What the medical tests have shown

  • What treatment you have received

Why is Disability Determination calling me?

If you receive a call from DDS, they may have questions about your application, or require additional information.

If needed, they’ll set up a consultative exam — a medical exam that helps prove your medical eligibility if your health records don’t have enough detail. The DDS pays for this exam.

What are the 5 steps of disability determination?

After gathering all of this information, the staff at the DDS make their initial decision on whether or not you are considered disabled by their standards. They use a five-step sequential evaluation process to make this decision. 

They’ll consider each of these questions:

  1. Are you working at a substantial gainful level?

  2. Do you have a severe impairment?

  3. Does your disability meet the SSA definition?

  4. Can you do work you’ve done in the past?

  5. Can you do any other types of work?

As part of this process, the DDS uses something called the Dictionary of Occupational Titles (DOT). The DOT includes 12,000 occupations and rates their physical demands. 

What happens after DDS makes its initial decision?

If the decision is in your favor, you'll receive disability benefits.

The timeline and amount of disability benefits you'll receive depend on which of the two disability programs offered by the Social Security Administration you are eligible for — Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) or Supplemental Security Income (SSI). Here's a breakdown of SSDI vs. SSI. (Note that it's also possible to apply for — and receive — both SSDI and SSI at the same time.)

If your application is not approved, the DDS keeps your file in case you appeal their decision (which you can and should, especially if it was your first time applying). If you appeal after the initial decision, your case will move through the following steps:

  1. Reconsideration

  2. Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) Hearing

Most disability applicants who win disability benefits win at the ALJ hearing — 54% see a favorable outcome, and your odds of winning increases threefold with a lawyer. If you’re rejected, you have an option to pursue a federal court appeal — though that is less common, and fewer candidates are approved this way. 


How can I help DDS process my disability application favorably?

The best thing you can do to improve your chances of being approved for disability benefits? Have a strong disability application. 

Provide robust medical records

Include records and notes from all of your doctors, providing as much helpful information as possible. Your doctor can’t put you on disability, but they can help strengthen your case by providing detailed medical records, ordering tests that show the severity of your condition, and referring you to specialists when appropriate.

Remember, the DDS will consider your symptoms and how they affect your level of physical and mental function. Tell your doctors the honest truth about what your day-to-day life is like and how your disability makes things difficult.

Consider sending a medical source statement, too. This is a written document from your doctor that includes their diagnosis of your condition; their opinion of its severity; and their opinion on your ability to work because of your condition. 

Respond quickly

If someone from the DDS reaches out to you for any reason — maybe they want to set up a consultative exam, they need information from more doctors, or they have questions — respond as soon as possible. Answering their messages quickly (within 10 days) will keep the process moving along.

Understand eligibility requirements

As you work on your application, it’s also helpful to understand what conditions qualify for disability and how the DDS evaluates them. DDS staff will look at your medical history and use the five-step sequential evaluation process mentioned above.

Work with a lawyer

While a lawyer isn’t mandatory to apply for disability, we highly recommend working with a good disability lawyer. A lawyer who’s familiar with disability will be a hugely valuable resource as you compile medical evidence to demonstrate your situation to the DDS. 

And if the decision from the DDS is not in your favor, your lawyer will be able to help you appeal. 

Here at Atticus, we offer legal advice at no cost to people who need it. We also have a deep network of vetted attorneys who have years of experience helping people get disability. 

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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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