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SSA says limited English ability not relevant to ability to work

The Social Security Administration, or SSA, proposed a change in February to its Social Security Disability Insurance and Supplemental Security Income regulations that would remove limited English proficiency, called LEP, from consideration as a factor impacting whether older people with severe medical impairments and other restrictions can work.

English fluency and the ability to work

We recently talked about the five-step process the government uses to determine whether an SSDI or SSI claimant is disabled and eligible for benefits. The SSA does not weigh “inability to communicate in English” unless the claimant makes it to step five without having been found disabled or not disabled.

By step five, it has been established that the person has a severe, long-term or fatal medical condition, is not earning meaningful income and cannot return to a previous occupation. At this point, the agency looks broadly at certain characteristics to decide if the claimant can work in a job sufficiently available in the economy:

  • Residual functional capacity, or RFC, meaning the claimant’s remaining capacity to perform job tasks after considering the limits posed by their physical and mental impairments
  • Age
  • Education, including inability to communicate in English
  • Work experience

These factors are entered into a chart, called the Medical-Vocational Guidelines or “the grids” that looks at various combinations of these factors and indicates whether a finding of “disabled” or “not disabled” is appropriate. Limited English ability does not combine with other factors to result in a finding of disability unless the person falls into one of these categories:

  • Can only perform light, unskilled work and is age 50 through 54
  • Can only perform sedentary, unskilled work and is age 45 through 49

The arguments

The SSA bases its proposal on three main things:

  • Even if someone cannot speak English, they might have finished high school or higher in another language.
  • The number of people who cannot speak English who work has increased.
  • It does not make sense to consider this factor when some applicants live in places where English is not the main language such as in Puerto Rico.

Justice in Aging is a national organization that fights poverty among seniors. Justice in Aging’s public comments against this proposal clearly explain why the SSA’s proposal is a bad idea for older, medically impaired claimants with few skills.

Justice in Aging asserts:

  • SSA should withdraw its proposal.
  • Foreign education does not necessarily provide a benefit to a worker who cannot speak English in the job market.
  • No evidence shows improvement in the labor market for older people who cannot communicate in English and many unskilled jobs do require communication in English.
  • Claimants living in areas where English is not the primary language are too insignificant in numbers to justify this change.

The agency took public comments on its proposal through April 2. As of this writing on June 25, the SSA has not announced whether it will adopt or rescind the proposal or modify it in response to comments. Those who advocate for SSDI and SSI claimants will monitor this situation with concern.




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