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English Language Ability Dropped as Factor for Social Security Disability

Inability to speak the language was one determinant that had been considered

exterior branch office of the Social Security Administration office of Disability Adjudication and Review


En español | Starting April 27, the government will no longer consider the inability to speak English as one element in determining whether a person should receive Social Security disability benefits.

The new rule, announced Monday, changes a policy created in 1978 that required the Social Security Administration (SSA) to assess English proficiency as part of someone's education when deciding whether they would be able to rejoin the workforce or should receive disability benefits instead. For people age 45 and older, inability to speak English was a supporting factor the agency used when making this decision. (Lack of English proficiency was not sufficient on its own to make someone eligible for disability.) The inability to speak English was also considered to counteract a worker's level of education — another factor in the decision to award Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) benefits.

"We are required to consider education to determine if your medical condition prevents work,” Social Security Commissioner Andrew Saul wrote in the Social Security Matters blog. “Research now shows the inability to communicate in English is no longer a good measure of a person's education level or the ability to engage in work.” The data supporting the rule, which is final, and not a proposal, is in the Federal Register.

The SSA says the research it used in making the decision included data from people who applied for SSDI benefits, noting that “claimants who report an inability to read, write, or speak English often report having a high school education or more.” And a Brookings Institution study shows that lack of English proficiency does not generally prevent low-skilled workers from obtaining employment.

Not everyone agrees. Justice in Aging, a national elder law advocacy group, said that the SSA didn't provide enough evidence for its decision to change the English rule. The group also said that the new rule “ignores the employment limitations experienced by people who have limited proficiency in English.”

The new rule is the latest in a series of proposals to overhaul SSDI eligibility. In February, the SSA proposed changes to the various medical classifications of SSDI recipients. The current system groups disability into three large categories, each with its own timeline for how often a recipient's eligibility for continued benefits is up for review. The proposal would cause some recipients to have to undergo review more frequently and could make it more difficult for some people to keep SSDI benefits. That proposed change has not been enacted yet.

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