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  • Writer's pictureJustin S. Raines

How do I prove that I’m disabled? The five-step sequential analysis.

Updated: May 15, 2021

Every disability case has unique evidentiary issues that are critical to winning. For example, the whole point of disability benefits is to prove that a person cannot work. So if a person is working, can he or she still be considered disabled? Does it matter how serious or severe his or her mental or physical impairments are?

To answer these and other important questions unique to Social Security disability cases (SSD, SSDI, and SSI), the Social Security Administration (SSA) has developed a “five-step sequential analysis.” Basically, these are five yes or no questions that must be answered in order. Skipping questions is not allowed.

Even though the questions question may seem easy to answer at first glance, they all use legal “terms of art”—terms that have highly specific and nuanced definitions—terms that lawyers are trained to apply.

There are many laws, rules, regulations, rulings, court cases, articles, and books devoted to helping to understand the terms used when answering these questions. But for a blog post like this, it’s best to take them one at a time and discuss them over several posts.

The Five-Step Sequential Analysis

  1. Is the person engaging in substantial gainful activity (SGA)? If yes, the person is not disabled.

  2. Does the person have a medically determinable physical or mental impairment(s) that is severe? If no, the person is not disabled.

  3. Does the person have an impairment(s) that meets or medically equals a listing in the Listing of Impairments (listings)? If yes and the impairment(s) meets the duration requirement, the person is disabled.

  4. Does the person have the residual functional capacity (RFC) to do past relevant work? If yes, the person is not disabled.

  5. Does the person have the RFC to adjust to other work that exists in significant numbers in the national economy, considering his or her age, education, and previous work experience? If no, the person is disabled. If yes, the person is not disabled.

Titles II and XVI: Documenting and Evaluating Disability in Young Adults, SSR 11-2p, 2011 WL 4055665 (Sept. 12, 2011) (endnotes omitted), available at, 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(i)-(v), 416.920(a)(4)(i)-(v).

If you have a severe physical or mental illness or injury, you should consult with an attorney experienced in Social Security disability for help and advice proving your case.

Stay tuned. In the next post, we will tackle the difficult questions, what is substantial gainful activity, and why does it matter to my disability case?

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