The One Question The Judge Will Ask At Your Disability Hearing (And How To Handle It)

You've waited months for your Social Security Disability hearing in front of the Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) - and you're aware that the judge is going to be asking you questions and...well, judging you. You're probably nervous about what to do and say. Here's the one question the ALJ is sure to ask (and how to handle it).

The Question: "Why Can't You Work?"

This is the basic reason that you've filed for disability. What the judge is asking is for more than a simple diagnosis, however.

The judge is really asking you what it is about your diagnosis that keeps you from working. While it might seem obvious to you how your medical condition is disabling, it isn't that obvious to most people - including the judge. Most medical conditions also have varying degrees of severity. This means that one person who suffers from something like bipolar disorder, for example, might be utterly disabled from the condition, while another person with the same diagnosis might only require medication in order to function fairly well.

The Worst Answer: "Nobody Will Hire Me."

This might be absolutely true, but it won't help your case in front of the ALJ, and it will sink your disability case. What people usually mean, when they say something like this, is that there aren't any jobs available that they can do, given the limitations of their conditions.

In order to qualify for disability benefits, you have to prove to the satisfaction of the ALJ that you can't work - even if a job is available. Saying that you can't work because no one will hire you sounds more like you can work - if someone was hiring. From the ALJ's perspective, you sound like you are trying to use disability benefits as a backup for unemployment benefits, and they aren't the same.

The Best Approach: "There Are Several Reasons."

A good way to answer the ALJ's question is to talk as if you were explaining the problem that you have to someone who has never heard of your condition before - or the type of work you've done in the past. It may sound strange (especially if you suffer from something that's fairly common, like chronic pain), but it can help you put into words what the ALJ needs to hear in order to approve your case.

For example, if you have a back injury, you can explain to the judge that:

  • your back injury causes you pain every day
  • the pain makes it impossible for you to lift anything over 5-10 pounds
  • you can't sit, stand, walk, or squat regularly
  • you can't hold your arms over your head or push or pull on anything that weighs more than a few pounds
  • you have to take pain medication and muscle relaxants that make it hard for you to concentrate or stay awake
  • you become exhausted after only a half hour or hour's worth of effort
  • you have to rest for two or three hours before doing anything else

Be very specific about your condition, and really try to give the judge a glimpse of the limitations of your condition.

Answering the ALJ's primary question doesn't have to be hard, especially if you realize what information is really being asked. Help the judge understand that it isn't just that no one will hire you - that even if you were given a job tomorrow, you still couldn't work due to the limitations of your condition.