Can You Get Disability for Hearing Loss or Deafness?

Deaf applicants, or those with profound hearing loss, should be able to qualify for disability benefits—either by meeting the SSA's listing or through a medical-vocational allowance. Here's how it works.

By , Attorney · UC Law San Francisco

If you have profound hearing loss or you're deaf, you should be able to qualify for Social Security disability benefits. The Social Security Administration (SSA) details how significant your hearing loss must be for it to qualify as a disability. But before you can qualify for disability for hearing loss, you'll need to have audiometric testing on both ears.

If your hearing loss doesn't meet the SSA's published standard for profound hearing loss, you still might be able to get disability benefits based on a medical-vocational allowance. You should qualify if you can show that your hearing loss reduces your ability to work so much that there are no jobs you can do considering your:

  • age
  • education, and
  • work experience.

But the SSA doesn't usually accept that mild or moderate hearing loss makes you unable to work, since hearing aids can usually correct these conditions. In addition, if you have good hearing in one ear, you won't qualify for disability benefits.

Here's what's required to qualify for Social Security disability benefits for deafness or hearing loss.

Medical Evidence Required to Get Disability for Hearing Loss

First, the SSA requires a physical examination by an otolaryngologist (ENT) or licensed physician to determine whether there's a temporary condition that's preventing you from hearing well. Some temporary conditions that can cause hearing loss include:

  • fluid buildup (usually in the middle ear) due to a virus or allergies
  • wax buildup
  • ear infection, or
  • ruptured eardrum.

Next, the SSA requires documented audiometric testing by a licensed audiologist or otolaryngologist (ENT). If your testing doesn't satisfy the SSA's requirements, you'll be sent to an ENT for a consultative exam and additional testing (at the SSA's expense). Your hearing will be tested without hearing aids.

If the SSA suspects your hearing loss isn't as great as you say (for instance, you have no family history of hearing loss and no physical abnormalities), the agency may require you to undergo auditory evoked response testing (which measures brainwave responses to tones).

Meeting the Official SSA Listing for Hearing Loss

Social Security's Blue Book of impairment listings states the requirements for automatically being granted disability benefits for hearing loss. The requirements differ depending on whether or not you have cochlear implants (in one or both ears).

Hearing Loss Without Cochlear Implants

To "meet" the SSA's listing for hearing loss without cochlear implants (listing 2.10)—that is, to automatically qualify for disability benefits under the listing—you must meet the SSA standard for either one of two tests.

1. Pure tone and bone conduction audiometry. Your hearing loss needs to be calculated by averaging your hearing at the sound frequencies of 500 hertz (Hz), 1,000 Hz, and 2,000 Hz. To meet the standard (profound hearing loss) in your better ear:

  • Your average hearing threshold sensitivity for air conduction must be 90 decibels (dB) or worse, and
  • You must have a bone conduction hearing threshold of 60 dB or worse.

2. Word recognition test. You must not be able to repeat more than 40% of a list of standardized words spoken in a word recognition test (which tests speech discrimination). Word recognition generally starts to deteriorate only when the pure tone average in your better ear is 45 dB or worse.

Hearing Loss with Cochlear Implantation

This SSA listing (listing 2.11) applies if you have cochlear implants in one or both ears. For one year after your cochlear implant surgery, you're automatically granted disability benefits (even if your hearing greatly improves before then).

One year after your implant surgery, if your word recognition score on a "Hearing in Noise Test" (HINT) is 60% or less, the SSA will extend your disability benefits until your word recognition score improves (if it ever does).

Disability for Hearing Loss Affecting Your Functional Capacity

If you don't qualify under one of the above official SSA impairment listings for hearing loss, you might still be eligible for disability benefits. As the next part of the disability determination process, the SSA must consider the effect of your hearing loss (and any other medical conditions you have) on your ability to do daily activities and work. The SSA will then determine whether there's any kind of work you could do.

If your hearing loss is significant (for example, your pure tone threshold is an average of 50 dB across the various frequencies, and you can't identify speech sounds more than 60% of the time when words are read to you), you might have difficulty talking to other people and following spoken directions. That would be a significant work-related impairment, yet you wouldn't meet the SSA's listing for hearing loss.

Your capacity to work. To decide if your hearing impairment rises to the level of a disability that prevents you from working, the SSA will give you a rating of the type of work it thinks you can do:

  • sedentary work
  • light work
  • medium work, or
  • heavy work.

This rating is called your residual functional capacity (RFC). The lower your RFC, the fewer types of jobs you can do. The SSA will likely give you an RFC rating if your pure tone average is worse than 40 dB in your better ear. (If it's not, you won't get an RFC, and there's no other way to qualify for disability benefits. This also means that total deafness in one ear, with no hearing loss or only mild hearing loss in the other ear, won't qualify you for disability benefits.)

Work restrictions. The SSA might also include specific restrictions on the type of job you can do in your RFC. For hearing loss, the key question for your RFC is whether you can do work that requires good hearing and good word recognition. If you have moderate to marked hearing loss and/or poor word recognition, you probably can't.

If the SSA puts restrictions regarding hearing in your RFC, you probably can't do jobs that:

  • require the use of the telephone or communicating over a radio
  • have a lot of background noise, or
  • require you to use hazardous machinery.

How the SSA decides if there are any jobs you can do. To see if jobs exist that you can do that don't require good hearing, the SSA will consider your RFC along with:

  • your age
  • your education, and
  • your work experience.

And it's likely the SSA will find that there are many jobs you can do where hearing isn't essential. But the SSA might find that there aren't any jobs you can do if:

  • your hearing loss is severe
  • you're older than 55
  • you have less than a high school education, and
  • you have no skills.

In that case, you could be granted disability benefits through a "medical-vocational allowance."

Applying for Disability: Your Right to Use an Interpreter

If you're deaf or hard of hearing and need an interpreter to interact and communicate with the Social Security Administration fully, it's a good idea to ask for one. Social Security will provide a free sign language interpreter to ensure Social Security representatives can properly conduct business with a hearing disabled applicant.

The Importance of Using a Qualified Interpreter

Using a qualified sign language interpreter ensures you'll receive an adequate and accurate translation of all communications concerning your disability claim throughout the application and the disability determination and medical evaluation processes.

A deaf applicant is entitled to the same level of confidentiality and privacy afforded to applicants who can hear. You shouldn't be forced to provide confidential medical or personal application information through a family member or friend because you can't hear or understand the Social Security examiner's statements or questions.

Using only qualified sign language interpreters ensures your application and medical information remain confidential, since the interpreter isn't permitted to disclose the contents of any communication or transaction in which they served as an interpreter.

Skills Required in a Qualified Sign Language Interpreter

A qualified sign language interpreter has the following skills:

  • the basic knowledge of sign language and finger spelling
  • the ability to process spoken communication into proper signs, and
  • the ability to observe someone else signing and then translate that person's signs or finger-spelled communications into spoken words.

You're allowed to bring your own interpreter, but if Social Security believes the interpreter isn't qualified, the agency can suspend the conversation until a Social Security interpreter can be present.

Starting a Disability Claim for Hearing Loss

It's okay if you don't know whether you're eligible for Social Security disability insurance (SSDI, where you must have paid enough taxes into Social Security) or Supplemental Security Income (SSI, for low-income filers). You can apply for both at the same time.

To get started, you can fill out the online application at a time and place that's convenient for you. Or call the SSA at 800-772-1213 (TTY: 800-325-0778) between 8:00 a.m. and 7:00 p.m. Monday through Friday to set up an appointment to fill out an application for disability at your local Social Security office.

When you fill out your disability application, include both:

  • how your hearing loss affects your life outside of work, and
  • how it impairs your ability to work.

If you have both hearing loss and another physical or mental impairment, be sure to include symptoms of the other impairment as well. If you need help with the process, or if the SSA has denied your disability claim for hearing loss, talk to a disability attorney for advice on how to proceed.

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