Grid Rules and Understanding them in Social Security Disability

If a disability applicant doesn’t meet a medical disability standard, Social Security uses grid rules that set out if an applicant is disabled based on age, RFC level (sedentary, light, medium, or heavy work), education level, work history, and skills. However, even if the grids determine that you are “not disabled,” there are ways to counter this presumption (for example, if you cannot perform sedentary work, if you have non-exertional impairments, if you can’t use perform a previous job, if you’ve got multiple conditions that reduce your RFC, if you fit into a “special vocational profile,” or if you virtually belong to the next age group). Note that if your impairments are not exertional in nature but entirely mental or psychological, the grids will not apply.

You might qualify immediately under the SSA grid rules table for SSDI if your highest capacity for work is limited to light work.

Before Using the Grid Rules

Before applying the grids, the SSA must make several determinations in additions including:

  • The residual functional capacity of the claimant (RFC).
  • How much schooling the claimant has
  • The skill level of his work
  • Whether any of the skills from his past work can be transferred to another job.

Residual Functional Capacity (RFC)

RFC is the detailed assessment prepared by the SSA that determines the level of work you can do based on any strength-related (exertional) constraints you may have. Your RFC is the most work you can perform on a sustained basis (like being able to lift 50 pounds and/or walk six hours a day). There are five distinct RFC levels:

  • sedentary work
  • light work
  • medium work,
  • heavy work, and
  • very heavy work.

Most disability applicants are assigned light, sedentary, or moderate RFCs. There’s a grid, with different rules, for each.

Your RFC also considers non-exertional limitations you have that restrict your ability to perform work-related activities, which can be helpful if the grids state that you are not handicapped (the grids use only the exertional degree in your RFC, not the non-exertional restrictions).


Educational levels are divided by the SSA into the following categories:

  • Illiterate or unable to communicate in English
  • Limited education (generally 11th grade and below)
  • High school graduate or more (including GED), and
  • Recent education that trained you for a skilled job (with at least a high school education).

As to the last category, the SSA calls this high school graduate or more but does provide entry into skilled work. This comes up rarely and applies to a person who completed an educational program. In one case, a 50-year-old man with a high school instruction returned to college to train as an electrician. Nonetheless, shortly after completing his final apprenticeship, he suffered an injury and applied for disability. The SSA classified his education as a high school grad or more but did consider his latest training to become an electrician, although the claimant graduated high school over 30 decades ago.

Previous Work Experience

The SSA will classify your past relevant work as semi-skilled, unskilled, and proficient. This determination is made according to your description of your past work, how the Department of Labor classifies your job, and how long it took you to be trained for the job.

If you don’t have any relevant work experience, the grids are more likely to say you’re disabled, especially if you are older, have a limited schooling, and/or have a lower RFC (for sedentary or light work). If you haven’t done any work in the previous fifteen years, this counts as not having any work experience. In fact, if you have no relevant work experience, didn’t graduate from high school, and are 55 or older, you’ll be deemed handicapped.

Transferability of Skills

The SSA will consider if you can be transferred to a new position. If you have abilities that can be easily utilized at a new job (for instance, you were a sales reps at your old job, you could manage customer service reps in a new job), it will be more difficult to win your claim.

How to Win Disability Outside the Grid Rules

Many handicap applicants will find that the grid usually classifies them as “not disabled.” This is almost always true for applicants aged 18-49. Luckily, for those who are seriously disabled, there are ways to refute the grid.

Inability to Do Sedentary Work

You will be determined disabled if you can prove that you cannot perform sedentary work. If you have certain types of constraints that prevent you from being able to do sedentary work, you should be given an RFC of “less than sedentary work,” in which case you will be classified as disabled regardless of your age, education, and work history.

Here are some other ways to beat the grid rules:

  • Showing your job skills aren’t transferable
  • Being a “worn-out worker,” i.e. one who has done arduous work for 35 years.
  • Nearing the next age category

If you’re 49, 54, or 59, you qualify for disability under the age grid for 50-54, 55-59, or 60 and older, Social Security may treat you as if you had reached another age group.

Non-Exertional Impairments

You might be able to win your claim if you have non-exertional impairments that limit your work, even if your bodily RFC is for heavy work or the grids state that you are not disabled. Non-exertional impairments can be those that affect your mental functioning (such as depression), non-strength-related physical limitations (like problems using your hands or fingers), or environmental limitations (such as not being able to work if exposed to smoke, fumes, dust, noise, or extreme temperature).

Applying the Grid Rules

It’s simply a matter of finding where the claimant falls on the grids when the SSA has made determinations in the four categories. A sedentary claimant is someone of advanced age (60 or older), has a limited education (no high school diploma), and is deemed to possess unskilled work. He would be deemed disabled in accordance with the grid rules.

Read More: Disability Reconsideration Stage in Social Security