Sometimes the Social Security Administration (SSA) can make a disability determination on the basis of medical factors alone (for instance, you automatically get benefits if your kidney disease requires daily hemodialysis). But if your impairment doesn't meet (or equal) the criteria of any impairment in SSA's Listing of Impairments, the SSA will assess your functional limitations and restrictions – that is, what you can and can't do – to see if you're disabled. The SSA will reach this step of the disability evaluation process only if you aren't doing what the SSA considers "substantial gainful activity."
Your residual functional capacity (RFC) is your remaining ability to do work-related physical and mental activities. The SSA will assess your condition and give you an RFC if you have a severe impairment (if it deems your impairment non-severe, the SSA will just deny your disability application without giving you an RFC.)
Your RFC represents the most that you can do despite the limitations caused by your impairment(s). If you have more than one impairment, the SSA will consider all of the limitations or restrictions resulting from all of your impairments (including severe and nonsevere impairments) in assessing your RFC.
The SSA will base its assessment of your RFC on all of the relevant evidence in your case record. For example, the SSA will look at your medical history, clinical signs and laboratory results, effects of treatment, effects of symptoms, opinions from doctors regarding what you can still do despite your impairment, reports of daily activities, and possibly evidence from family, friends, or teachers.
In assessing your RFC, the SSA must address both your exertional and nonexertional limitations or restrictions.
Exertional capacity refers to your ability to sit, stand, walk, lift, carry, push, and pull. These are known as the seven strength demands. The SSA's evaluation process addresses these demands of work by classifying jobs as sedentary, light, medium, heavy, and very heavy.
For sedentary work, you can lift no more than ten pounds at a time and occasionally carry or lift objects such as lightweight tools and file folders. While sedentary jobs mostly involve sitting, some walking and standing can be required occasionally to carry out job duties. To perform the full range of sedentary work, you should be able to sit for about 6 hours of an 8-hour workday and walk and stand up to two hours of an eight hour workday.
For light work, you can lift no more than twenty pounds at a time and you can frequently carry or lift objects weighing less than ten pounds. In general, light work involves walking or standing for about six hours of an eight hour workday. However, a job that involves sitting most of the time can still be considered light work if it involves some pushing and pulling of hand or foot controls, since such activity requires more exertion than in sedentary work. Examples of such jobs include a sewing machine operator and a medical transcriptionist.
For medium work, you can lift no more than 50 pounds at a time and frequently carry or lift objects weighing up to only 25 pounds. Medium work requires that you are able to walk or stand for about six hours of an eight hour workday.
For heavy work, you can lift no more than 100 pounds at a time and frequently carry or lift objects weighing up to only 50 pounds.
For very heavy work, you may lift more than 100 pounds at a time and frequently carry or lift objects weighing 50 pounds or more.
Nonexertional capacity refers to your ability to perform physical activities other than the seven strength demands, as well as your mental abilities. Nonexertional limitations or restrictions can be postural (stooping, bending, climbing), manipulative (handling, reaching, fine finger movements), communicative (speaking or hearing), or visual. Additionally, nonexertional capacity can include your ability to tolerate environmental factors such as dust or fumes, noise, or temperature extremes.
Also included in your nonexertional capacity is your ability to perform work-related mental activities. Mental abilities required at the workplace can include your ability to comprehend and remember instructions (and carry them out), to interact properly with supervisors and co-workers, to deal with changes in your work routine, and use to be able to exercise judgment in making decisions at work.
If you have a mental impairment, your RFC assessment will determine whether you can do unskilled work, semi-skilled work, or skilled work.
Once your RFC has been assessed, the SSA will use your RFC to determine if you can perform your past job. The SSA will compare your RFC with the physical and mental demands of your past relevant work. The SSA will look at past work that you've done in the past 15 years and that lasted long enough for you to learn to do it.
For example, if your RFC allows you to perform sedentary work, and you held a job within the past 15 years as a receptionist, the SSA will probably determine that you can return to your job as a receptionist, and you will be found not disabled. However, if your past jobs all required light exertion and you have been given a sedentary RFC, the SSA will determine that you can't perform any of them, and the disability evaluation will continue to see if you can perform other jobs.
The SSA will then evaluate whether you can adjust to doing other jobs by considering "vocational" factors such as your age, education, and work experience in combination with your RFC. If the SSA determines that you can do other jobs (and such jobs exist in significant numbers in the national economy), then you will be found not disabled. However, if the SSA finds that your RFC and vocational factors prevent you from adjusting to other jobs, you will be found disabled and awarded disability benefits through what's called a medical-vocational allowance.
Given the importance of your RFC assessment, you should ask your doctor to complete an RFC assessment form and you should submit it with your application for disability benefits. Contact your local SSA office to obtain copies of the physical RFC form and the mental RFC form. You can call the SSA at (800) 772-1213.