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SSA Removes “Inability to Communicate in English” as Vocational Factor

February 26, 2020

calendar with red x on the 27thSocial Security just announced an important change to its rules. On February 25, 2020, the Social Security Administration announced that starting April 27, 2020 the administration will no longer consider whether a person is able to communicate in English when evaluating an application for disability benefits. 

Since 1978, Social Security’s rules have recognized that “it may be difficult for an individual who does not speak and understand English to do a job, regardless of the amount of education the person may have in another language.” The law permitted decision makers to take into account the effect a language barrier has on an individual’s ability to find and keep a job. While lack of English proficiency itself was never a disabling condition, it was a factor taken into account along with a person’s age, health problems, and education level. The practical effect of the law was that it was easier to prove disability for non-English speakers aged 45-55 than it was to prove disability for English speakers aged 45-55.

Why is this change happening?

Social Security has offered several reasons for this rule change. Here are a few of those reasons: the current rules give non-English speakers an advantage over English speakers; the current rule creates a negative perception of non-English speakers because it suggests only English speaking persons are educated enough to hold a job; and the United States has become such a diverse country that it is no longer imperative to speak, read, or write English to keep a job.

What does this mean for disability claimants who are not proficient in English?

If you speak, read, and/or write in English this rule change will not effect you. If you or your family member is not proficient in English, then it will be more difficult to prove a case for Social Security disability. 

A person’s ability to speak English was only relevant after a disability claimant has already proven that they are too limited to do the work they have done in the past. At that point in the disability evaluation process, Social Security considers whether there is other work in the national economy that a person with a given set of physical and mental limitations could transition to. Non-English speakers can no longer point to the language barrier they face as a factor Social Security will rely on in their favor. This change is yet another example of why people need help from an experienced lawyer who is up to date with Social Security’s constantly changing rules and regulations.

What does Balin Law think of this change?

As usual, we have an opinion. We do not like this rule change and feel this rule negatively impacts our immigrant clients. We feel this rule does not reflect the reality of living with a language barrier in Ohio.

While the country as a whole has become much more diverse since 1978 when the current rule was announced, Ohio remains fairly homogenous with regard to English speaking. Again, this rule change only effects individuals who have already proven that they cannot do the work they have done in the past. At that point, the question becomes whether there is other work that a person could transition to. If we represented people in New York, California, Florida, or Texas, we would be more willing to agree that there are other workplaces to transition to because those states have very large immigrant communities. Ohio has much smaller immigrant communities. Therefore, it can be harder to find a workplace tolerant of an inability to speak English. 

These concerns were brought up to Social Security and they responded that the Social Security Act is national in scope and it doesn’t matter if work exists in the area in which a person lives as long as sufficient work exists in the “national economy.” Well, it matters to our clients, and if it matters to our clients it matters to us. We will continue to zealously represent our immigrant neighbors.

You can read the full text of this rule change and Social Security’s responses to public comment.

If you have questions or comments about this rule change, please leave a comment below or contact us directly.