HAP represents hundreds of people per year in their Social Security Disability and SSI cases. The reality, however, is that the need in Philadelphia’s homeless population far exceeds our capacity. You may have luck with other legal service organizations or private attorneys in the area, but read on below for our guidance on best practices when filing a disability claim for yourself.

Disclaimer: the information below does not, and is not intended to, constitute legal advice. It is intended for general informational purposes. It may not constitute the most up-to-date legal or other information. If you have questions about any of the below, call us at 215-523-9595 and ask for Patrick.

First things first: are you actually disabled according to the Social Security Administration?

Let’s look at how Social Security defines disability: “the inability to do any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which can be expected to result in death or which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months.”

To break it down in plain speak: if you can say, “I am unable to work any job (and earn at least $1,550 per month (in 2024)) due to a diagnosed medical condition or mental illness,” then you are disabled under Social Security’s rules.

But is that disability backed by medical evidence?

Social Security will need to consider all available medical evidence, and without a substantial amount, they will usually deny a claim. That’s why it’s critically important that you are getting ongoing treatment for your disabling condition by a medical provider, specifically a doctor, psychiatrist, specialist, or nurse practitioner. The longer your course of treatment, the more Social Security will weigh those records. For example, if you are claiming disability based on a mental health issue, but have only seen the doctor once or twice, Social Security may ask that you see them a few more times, or deny you altogether, citing “insufficient evidence.”

How to apply

You can start an application online (www.ssa.gov/apply), over the phone (1-800-772-1213), or in person at your local Social Security Field office. To find which office is yours, visit this site and type in your zip code: www.secure.ssa.gov/ICON/main.jsp.

You do not need to bring a photo ID with you to apply. Social Security may require ID or other documentation before finishing your claim, though.

When you apply, make sure you list ALL of your mental health and medical conditions, and all doctor offices or hospitals where you’ve received treatment

You should always disclose any outpatient or inpatient treatment you have received within the recent past, even if you don’t think it is relevant to your disability. You never know, the records from one might inform those from another. It’s important to include doctors, hospitals, clinics, social workers, home health aides, therapists, psychiatrists, specialists, surgeons, and nurse practitioners. Also make sure to provide Social Security with an up-to-date list of ALL medications you take, including dosages, the names of the prescribing doctors or nurse practitioners, and any problematic side effects.

It is very hard to win a physical disability case under 55 years of age

We see many people who can no longer return to their past line of work due to injury. For example, someone who has worked construction for the last ten years and can no longer do the work due to a back injury. If you are below the age of 50, however, Social Security may make the case that you are still young enough to learn a new skill, like a desk job. Your injury may be severe enough that it prevents you from sitting for long periods of time as well, but to prove that, Social Security may require extensive records, including treatment notes, physical therapy records, operation reports, and current diagnosis and prognosis. In some cases, an opinion letter or statement from your treating specialist doctor will be necessary.

If you are claiming disability due to mental health, your treatment should be regular and thorough

Many people who receive outpatient mental health treatment, if they are receiving medication, meet with their doctor once a month, and usually only for a few minutes. It is extremely important that during those medication visits, you are communicating to your doctor or clinician ALL of your ongoing mental health symptoms. Social Security is going to look closely at their notes, and if a disabling symptom is not recorded, it won’t be recognized. If you are at a provider for a dual diagnosis, it’s even more important to make sure you are talking to your doctor about your mental illness, and not only your issues pertaining to addiction. Social Security does not recognize substance use as a disabling condition.

Consultative evaluations

When they are weighing the medical evidence of your disability claim, Social Security may decide they need another opinion. In this case, they will likely schedule you a consultative evaluation (“CE”) with IMA, a third party contractor on South Broad Street. When attending a CE, it’s important to make sure you report ALL of your ongoing symptoms and difficulties to the doctor you meet with. If you happen to be having a good day that day, it’s okay to communicate that, but make sure you give the doctor a good sense of what your bad days are like, as well.

Always be reachable

The application process is going to take months–maybe as long as a year. During that time, it’s extremely important that Social Security is able to reach you, by phone and by mail, so make sure you provide them with a reliable phone number and mailing address that you check regularly. If you change phone numbers or mailing addresses, provide Social Security with the updated information ASAP. If Social Security sends out a notice or phone call and doen’t hear back, they are often likely to issue a technical denial. Many Disability and SSI claims result in technical denials for this very avoidable reason–don’t be one of them!

What if you’re denied?

If your claim is denied, you have 60 days to file an appeal. If you believe you have been wrongfully denied, you should appeal as soon as possible. You should also consider reaching out to a legal services organization or a private attorney. Private attorneys often collect a percentage of your backpay, but that percentage is capped at a certain amount, and you are statistically much more likely to be approved with professional representation. Many attorneys offer free consultations.