If you have profound hearing loss or deafness, 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 that prevents you from working, and thus makes you eligible for benefits.
If your hearing loss does not 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, if you can show that your hearing loss reduces your capacity to work so much that there are no jobs you can do considering your age, education, and experience. However, the SSA does not usually accept that mild and moderate hearing loss affects your capacity to work since these conditions can usually be corrected using hearing aids. In addition, if you have good hearing in one ear, you won’t qualify for disability benefits.
First, the SSA requires a physical examination by an otolaryngologist (ENT) or licensed physician to determine whether there is a temporary condition that is preventing you from hearing well, such as fluid buildup due to a virus or allergies, wax buildup, ear infection, or ruptured eardrum.
Next, the SSA requires documented audiometric testing, done by a licensed audiologist or otolaryngologist (ENT). If your testing does not satisfy the SSA's requirements, it will pay for you to visit an ENT for additional testing. All testing is done without hearing aids in.
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), it may require you to undergo auditory evoked response testing (which measures brainwave responses to tones).
The SSA's "blue book" of impairment listings states the requirements for automatically being granted disability benefits for hearing loss. There are different requirements for those with cochlear implants (one or both ears) and those without.
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 either one of two tests.
Pure tone and bone conduction audiometry. Your average hearing threshold sensitivity for air conduction must be 90 decibels (dB) or worse in your better ear, and you must have a bone conduction hearing threshold of 60 decibels (dB) or worse in your better ear. This represents profound hearing loss. 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.
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 the better ear is 45 dB or worse.)
This SSA listing (2.11) applies if you have cochlear implants in one or both ears. For one year after the surgery for implantation of cochlear implants, you are automatically granted disability benefits (even if your hearing greatly improves before then). After one year post-surgery, if your word recognition score on a "Hearing in Noise Test" (HINT) is 60% or less, your disability benefits will be extended until your word recognition score improves (if it does).
If you don’t qualify under one of the above official SSA impairment listings for hearing loss, as the next part of the disability determination process, the SSA is required to consider the effect of your hearing loss (and any other symptoms) on your capacity to do daily activities and work, and will then determine whether there is 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 cannot identify speech sounds more than 60% of the time when words are read to you), you may have difficulty talking to other people and following direction, which is a significant work-related impairment, yet you wouldn't meet the SSA's listing for hearing loss.
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 is called your residual functional capacity (RFC). The lower your RFC, the fewer types of jobs you can do. If your pure tone average is worse than 40 dB in your better ear, the SSA is likely to give you some type of RFC. (If 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 or mild hearing loss in the other ear, will not qualify you for disability benefits.)
The SSA may 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, jobs with a lot of background noise, or jobs that use hazardous machinery. However, when the SSA considers your RFC along with your age, your education, and your experience, to see if there are any jobs you can do that don’t require good hearing, it’s likely the SSA will find that there are many jobs you can do where hearing isn’t important. But if there are not (which might possible if your hearing loss is marked and you are older than 55, have less than a high school education, and have no skills), you could be granted disability benefits via what’s called a medical-vocational allowance.
If you don’t know whether you are 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. Call the SSA at 800-772-1213 to set up an appointment to fill out an application for disability. When you fill out your 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 a hearing loss and another physical impairment, be sure to include symptoms of the other physical impairment as well. If you need help with the process, or if you've been denied, talk to a disability attorney for advice on how to proceed.
Updated August 26, 2020