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Judge a disability by its functional impairment, not appearance

A disability should be judged by the degree to which it functionally impairs an individual’s ability to work, not by whether its symptoms are outwardly visible. At least, that’s the functional standard used by the Social Security Administration regarding its disability benefits programs.

Unfortunately, a recent article suggests that individuals who suffer from so-called invisible disabilities -- conditions that are not outwardly apparent to onlookers -- may face extra challenges. Disabilities on this list may include chronic pain conditions such as fibromyalgia, chronic inflammatory conditions like lupus or Crohn’s disease, mental conditions like severe depression, anxiety disorder or bipolar disorder, as well autoimmune diseases like Lyme disease or Type 1 diabetes.

The extra difficulties presented by invisible disabilities may begin when an individual requests special workplace accommodations. Without signs of the individual’s limitations or struggles, an employer may not understand the need for special treatment. That underestimation may continue even when a worker’s conditions progresses to the point of making it impossible to work. 

Similarly, a disability examiner from the SSA may also not appreciate the severity of an individual’s limitations. If an individual looks fine, that perception may influence an examiner’s ruling in a hearing for Social Security disability insurance benefits, notwithstanding the SSA’s functional definition of disability.

Our law firm focuses on disability benefits and has helped individuals with a whole range of disabilities. For applications based on an invisible disability, we advise our clients to work closely with their doctors in creating enough documentation. Individuals should describe all of their symptoms to their doctors, even if unrelated to the primary diagnosis. Similarly, records should be kept of all treatments received. Those records will help a disability examiner make a ruling based on the medical evidence, instead of an individual’s outward appearance.

Source: North Country Public Radio, "People With 'Invisible Disabilities' Fight For Understanding," Naomi Gingola, March 8, 2015

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