Rheumatoid Arthritis and Disability Applications: What to Know

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a social security benefits form
Detailed and complete documentation may strengthen your case for disability benefits.Shutterstock

Living with rheumatoid arthritis (RA) can be challenging. When those challenges — such as walking or standing limitations, or experiencing brain fog or fatigue — make it impossible to work, it’s possible to apply for replacement disability income. There are two options for this: short-term or long-term disability programs through a current employer, or the federal Social Security Disability Income program.

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Symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis can affect a person’s ability to work: Joint issues can make it hard to perform the tasks of a job, such as using repetitive motions or being unable to grip or grasp items appropriately. Fatigue may require a person to stay home and miss work for extended periods of time.

The Disability Application Process Can Be Daunting

Applying for disability can be a detailed process. It’s common for people applying for the federal program to be denied after their first application. But it’s possible to appeal and to ultimately get approved for disability benefits. “The most important takeaway is that you have to be a self-advocate with patience and persistence,” says Jessica Boles, a licensed social worker and a patient advocate and community outreach manager for CreakyJoints and the Global Healthy Living Foundation, two resources for people living with arthritis and other chronic illnesses, respectively.

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Who Qualifies for Disability Benefits?

For an employee seeking short- or long-term disability benefits from an employer, the process is typically to fill out paperwork, including relevant medical paperwork, that clearly shows why benefits are needed, says Boles. “With a group plan, usually the patient will receive a percentage of what their individual paycheck is. There could be a waiting period before a person could access benefits, and it can get tricky with preexisting treatments,” she says.

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For those without a group plan through an employer, there is Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI), a program offered by the Social Security Administration. Per the agency's website, people can apply for SSDI if they are 18 or older, aren’t already receiving Social Security benefits, can’t work because of a medical condition that is expected to last at least 12 months or result in death, and haven’t already been denied. (Those who have been denied can appeal the decision; see the section How to Appeal a Disability Benefit Denial, below.)

According to Boles, in terms of approval for SSDI, they've learned that it is more about proving that individuals can't do any job, not simply their own current job. She says, “It’s more, ‘I can’t do any work whatsoever.’”

The program depends on a person’s earning history and whether they paid Social Security benefits through taxes, Boles adds. For people who are self-employed, clarify with the Social Security Administration if that work history qualifies.

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The Disability Benefits Application Process

If you are applying to an employer’s disability program, make sure you provide all the paperwork requested and do what is asked of you. For disability programs offered through employers, “I don’t typically see a lot of denials,” says Boles. “But in my experience, what I see with SSDI, a lot of folks tend to be denied often. I suggest always consider appealing.”

Loop Your Doctor Into the Application Process Early

Crucial for applying for any disability program is filling out all the paperwork completely. Talk to your diagnosing physician early — before you begin the application process — as well as any other physicians who can support the application, said Mirean Coleman, a licensed independent clinical social worker and clinical manager for the National Association of Social Workers based in Washington, DC.

“The patient needs to initiate an application first with the Social Security office, and on the application, they would include a list of physicians who are involved in the patient’s care,” Coleman says. “The Social Security office would forward papers directly to the physician. It’s important for the patient not only to keep things timely but to inform the physician that they intend to apply for disability. That way, the physician can look out for the incoming information and complete the application by the return-by date.”

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How to Appeal a Disability Benefit Denial

Since denials can be common, “We always encourage the patient not to be discouraged by the denial,” says Coleman. “The most important thing is to appeal it and to let another decision-making process take place.”

Why are applications for benefit denials so common? Applications may lack information, either from a patient or a medical professional. “Papers have to be filled out in a concise and detailed way that explains what the disability is, what its impact is on the lifestyle of the patient, and why the patient may need disability at this time,” says Coleman.

Working with other professionals can be helpful during the appeals process. “When you apply through Social Security, you are typically assigned a social worker, or can request one, to work with,” says Boles. “Folks may also want to hire an advocate or an attorney who specifically deals with disability rights. The Social Security Administration often has a list of resources online.” These include information about how to find someone to work with, as well as tips for those who are representing the applicant.

Stick With the Appeal Process

One resource to use to track RA symptoms and how they affect day-to-day function is the Arthritis Power app, which can maintain a digital record of symptoms. “Patients have a hard time remembering what happens between appointments,” says Boles. “With this app, you can track your symptoms in an app, and you can tell your doctor. It can be easier to extract information and send to a doctor in an app.”

Consider getting others to help. “Stick with it and appeal the situation,” says Coleman. “Sometimes people have to appeal several times before they are approved.” An attorney can help with the appeal process. A social worker can offer resources to strengthen an application.

Help Strengthen Your Disability Case With a Social Worker

For help finding a qualified social worker, the National Association of Social Workers offers its Help Starts Here website, where you can find a social worker to help with various concerns, says Coleman. For more details about applying for disability benefits, download the Disability Benefits PDF brochure from the Social Security Administration, which details the procedure.

Don’t let the prospect of a difficult process scare you away from filing an initial application or appealing a denied one.

“There is so much stigma in the world for individuals living with chronic illness,” says Boles. “Patients are paying into these benefits and have a right to access them. If patients can’t work, they shouldn’t be risking worsening their health and causing more damage to themselves — physically and mentally — if they continue to work. It’s important for people to know they have a right to these benefits.”