• Justin S. Raines

What should I expect at my disability hearing?


Your Social Security disability hearing before an administrative law judge (ALJ) is probably the most important appeal in your case. This is your opportunity to tell the ALJ about your story, your struggles, and the reasons that you can’t work. You should make every effort to attend your disability hearing.


Before the day of the hearing, you will have received a copy of the medical records that the Social Security Administration (SSA) obtained in your case. You will have provided the ALJ with updated medical records. You will have informed the ALJ about your current medications, work background, and current treatment. Hopefully, you will have submitted a medical opinion from one or more treating providers about your severe physical or mental impairments and how they limit your ability to work—in other words, your residual functional capacity (RFC).


If you have a lawyer, your lawyer should explain how the disability hearing will work in advance. If you do not have a lawyer, this article should help, but it is no substitute for the benefit of having an experience Social Security disability attorney.


Your hearing will be kept confidential.

Your disability hearing will be kept confidential so that you can feel comfortable talking about the serious and important issues in your case. The ALJ will understand that talking about these issues can be difficult.


The only people in attendance at your disability hearing will have a reason to attend. Those people are the ALJ, a court reporter, who makes an audio recording of the hearing, and one or more expert witnesses.


If you need someone to attend with you for emotional support, you will need to ask the ALJ for permission. As a general rule, a person who attends the hearing for emotional support is not allowed to speak for you or testify.


Social Security disability hearings usually take about an hour. The ALJ will begin the hearing by asking you to identify yourself and provide a current address and contact number. The ALJ will usually ask you to provide an updated written release for medical records, called a Form SSA-827.

Social Security disability hearings take place either in person, over video teleconferencing, or in extraordinary circumstances, on the telephone. As of the date of this article, all hearings are being held by telephone nationwide because of the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic.

The ALJ will read the issues, unless you waive having them read.


The ALJ will then ask if you want the ALJ to read the issues in your case. In Social Security Disability Insurance (SSD, SSDI, or DIB) cases, the ALJ will address the five-step sequential analysis and the last date that you were insured for disability benefits. In Supplemental Security Income (SSI) cases, the ALJ will address the five-step sequential analysis. If there is a substance use disorder, the ALJ will read the issues related to substance abuse disorders.


If you have a disability lawyer, your lawyer will explain these issues to you before the hearing and will usually waive having them read by the ALJ. If you do not have a lawyer, it is a good idea to let the ALJ read the issues to you so that you fully understand the process.


You will be the main witness in your disability case.

There are three things to remember when you testify at your disability hearing. First, be truthful about everything. Don’t exaggerate your problems, but don’t minimize them either. Just describe things as they are. If you don’t remember something, it’s okay to say that you don’t remember. Your disability hearing is not a memory test.


Second, listen carefully to the question that you’re asked, answer the question, and stop talking. Do not talk about things that you are not asked about. If you have an experienced disability attorney, your attorney will walk you through the important topics that you need to cover. If you are not represented, bring in a list of your severe physical or mental impairments and make sure that you discuss each one.


Third, you need to give answers aloud so that the hearing reporter can get a good recording. Nodding and shaking your head will not come out on the audio recording of your hearing. Pointing to parts of your body where you experience pain or other symptoms will not come out on the audio recording.


What will I testify about?

You will testify about your work history and the reasons that you stopped working. If you are still working, you will testify about the reasons that your work should not be considered substantial gainful activity (SGA).


You will testify about your severe mental or physical illnesses or injuries and how they impact you on a day-to-day basis. You will testify about the treatment you have received and the effectiveness of that treatment. You will also testify about your abilities, what you can still do, and your limitations, what you can no longer do.


The ALJ or your disability lawyer will usually ask you to describe what you do on a day-to-day basis or on an average day. What you do on a day-to-day basis is called your activities of daily living (ADLs). When you are asked about your ADLs, you should always talk about the problems that you have doing them. For example, don’t assume that the ALJ will know that you have a hard time sweeping or mopping. You need to let the ALJ know.


A vocational expert will probably testify at your hearing.


A vocational expert (VE) is the most common expert witness that will testify at your hearing. The VE will testify about your work history and the impact of your limitations on your ability to maintain employment.


The VE will classify your jobs according to a book called the Dictionary of Occupational Titles (DOT) and another book called the Selected Characteristics of Occupations (SCO).

Using the information from those books and the VE’s experience, research, and jobs data, the VE will testify about whether a person with different hypothetical limitations could perform different jobs. If you don’t have a lawyer, you may cross-examine the VE directly. If you do have a disability lawyer, then your lawyer will cross-examine the VE for you.


A medical, psychiatric, or psychological expert may also testify at your hearing.

The second most common expert witness to testify will be a medical, psychiatric, or psychological expert (ME). An ME will testify based on a review of the medical records in your case. The ME will not examine you or prescribe any medications or treatment.


The ME will give an opinion about (1) whether your impairments are severe, (2) whether your impairments meet or equal a listing, and (3) your RFC.


An ME will not give an opinion about whether you can work. The ME will give an opinion about the kinds of limitations that you would like experience if you tried to work. If you don’t have an attorney, you may cross-examine the ME directly. If you do have a disability attorney, then your lawyer will cross-examine the ME for you.


What if I want another witness to testify?

If you have your own witnesses, you need to let the ALJ know at the beginning of the hearing. These witnesses will usually wait outside of the hearing room until it is time for them to testify. They will then be brought into the room, give their testimony, and leave so that the hearing can be completed.


What if I’m uncomfortable sitting down or need to change positions?

Many people with severe physical illnesses or injuries are uncomfortable sitting for long periods of time. Most ALJs will not mind if you stand up during the hearing. If you need to stand up, you should ask the ALJ for permission so that there will be a record of your need to stand on the audio recording.


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.

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