Social Security Disability Application Part 1: Filling Out the Forms

How and why I applied for Social Security Disability benefits and how hard it is even with help.

Social Security Disability Application Part 1: Filling Out the Forms

Read the Series:


The short version of my first time applying for Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) is that I had help with the paperwork. In terms of any practical lessons people could learn from my experience there's not much to it. Much like in real life, the first time isn't very sexy.

Even so, I do think it's worth talking about the process.

As I mentioned before, I had the benefit of a ton of privilege in my journey to becoming capital-D Disabled. I had far more resources and help than most do. I think the best way to describe it is that I went through this on Easy Mode.

So on the one hand, I understand that what I went through is not going to be indicative of what everyone will go through. But at the same time most people go through this on Hard Mode. Therefore if I still ran into difficulty time and time again, imagine what it's like for other people.

I can't stress enough how this contrast was never far from my mind every time I ran into an obstacle.

So let's talk about what I went through and why I even applied.

I'll Get Better Any Day Now

The thing is I didn't even want to or think I should apply for SSDI benefits. I applied because I wasn't given a choice. My private disability benefits through my job required it.

At some point maybe I'll be in a place where I can talk about what made me go on disability leave. For now suffice it to say I was in a bad enough spot that even I, who am all but genetically incapable of asking for help, was calling multiple doctors and services and begging for assistance.

Wow is that a vague and not at all fully indicative way to put it.

Anyway, you get the idea. I wasn't well and when I finally got to sit in front of medical professionals they were like "Yeah, you're not going back to work."

Even so, for the longest time I kept looking at my illness in terms of constantly approaching dates at which point I would be all better. I'll be better when my vacation days run out, I'll be better when my FMLA runs out, I'll be better when my short term disability benefits run out, I'll be better when I'm done trying this medication, I'll be better when I've finished this outpatient treatment, I'll be better, I'll be better, I'll be better…

My illness obviously gave no fucks about the calendar.

I was convinced of it, though, so I not only gave no thought to the idea of SSDI but I believed it was ridiculous for me to apply. I wouldn't need it. Why bother?

But as I say, I wasn't given a choice. Which sounds more ominous than it is. It's all bureaucracy and money so I'll put it in its own section on the odd chance that doesn't interest you. No hurt feelings if you skip down, I promise.

It's All About Money

The insurance company that gave me my private disability benefits said it was a requirement to apply for SSDI once I met the qualifications for possibly being eligible for them. Said qualifications were that I was out of work for the period of time SSDI required due to a disability of some kind.

The reason why the company cared was that they didn't want to cover the amount of money that SSDI would give me. To them the arrangement of my policy meant they agreed I should be getting a certain amount of money per month as long as they covered me. But if SSDI covered part of that amount, the insurance didn't want to be paying it.

For example: if monthly benefit per the private insurance was, to make up a round number, $400 and SSDI would pay $100 of that, then the company would lower the check they sent me to $300. $300 + $100 = $400. Same amount of money to me per the policy, less coming out of the coffers of the insurance company.

A visual representation of the above paragraph
For those of us who are more visual learners.

The compromise solution of forcing me to apply for SSDI is that they would hook me up with a company which would assist me with the application. This turned out to be a saving grace for me because I can assure you there is no fucking way I could've handled this application on my own. Just not possible. My brain, my anxiety, my energy, my concentration, nothing about me could've handled this. Would not have happened. Period, end of story.

For payment they gave me the option: let them take the estimated SSDI money out of my monthly check in advance, or take a lump sum payment when/if my SSDI benefits were awarded.

Again to explain this in round numbers: let's say that it takes twelve months from the day I'm eligible for SSDI until I'm approved for SSDI. Your SSDI approval is retroactive to the date of your eligibility, so in addition to now getting monthly SSDI payments you also get a check covering the owed back pay. Assuming twelve months' worth of $100 payments, that would mean $1200 in back pay.

Using this example, the choice the insurance was offering me was to take $300/month from them in anticipation that I'd be getting a $1200 check in the future, or take $400/month from them and give them the $1200 check when it arrived. The fees to pay the company helping with my application would then come out of that check, and everything else would go to the insurance company.

If that check arrived. There was a gamble here in that I could be rejected for SSDI. If so there would be some cost coming out of my pocket to cover the fees of the company that was helping me. This didn't happen in my case so I can't say the exact number off of the top of my head, but it was something in the neighborhood of a couple thousand.

A visual depiction of the previous paragraphs
If you need the visual. There won’t be a quiz or anything, I promise.

This is where my privilege came into play: I had emergency savings. In a worst case scenario that I had to pay that fee out of pocket I could cover it. That allowed me to pick the first option of getting my full check from the insurance company.

My thought process was that I didn't think I was sick enough for SSDI (I'll be better any day now, remember?) so the application itself was merely an administrative exercise that would go nowhere. Second, if the whole SSDI thing went through, I preferred to have my money in hand and risk having to pay some back later rather than trust I would get any owed money at an undefined date in the future.

Finally I figured if the insurance company was helping me to save themselves money they'd be far more motivated if they needed to earn it by winning my case.

I told them that was the payment option I wanted to go with and we were off to the races. Application here we come!

The First Application

As I said, the first application isn't sexy. It's filling out forms and getting medical records from your various doctors. Which doesn't sound like much and certainly isn't that much compared to the next levels of applying. But for somebody like me I could never have done it on my own. As I kept saying to any poor soul who would listen: If I could make phone calls, fill out paperwork, and organize files I'd be, yanno, working.

So the company helping me took care of the actual legwork, such as it was. They contacted my doctors, they filled out the forms for me, they sent me things to sign with clear instructions on what I needed to do, they sent in the application.

I won't mention the company by name because that'll provide identifying details about myself, but I will say that the people who worked there were wonderful and clearly used to dealing with people in my situation. When I told them about my various issues they could not have been more patient and kind. To give an example my fellow anxiety sufferers will appreciate, I'm talking things like saying to me that okay, mail is going to be coming in a few days from such and such, in that mail will be these forms which say this and that, what I'll need to do is find page three on the forms and initial and then…

And so on and so forth. You get the idea. They understood how to talk to me in a way that was helpful and kept me from having panic attacks at seeing official looking envelopes in my mail and I am supremely grateful for that.

They were also very clear about the process. As in "Okay so we'll send in the application and when you get rejected here are our next steps."

You caught that right? Not if I get rejected, but when.


Everyone Gets Rejected

Turns out that, with rare exceptions, everyone's first application for SSDI gets rejected. This was so much a part of the process that it was explained to me as a step no different from making sure to sign the forms.

In fact, the rejection was explained to me in such a way that it was treated as the process. Like "Step one is you send in the application and get the first rejection, which then allows us to do step two." It's simply known that your first application is a formality. You send it in, someone at Social Security stamps REJECTED on it sight unseen, it gets sent back. Done and done.

This was one of many times when I was so grateful for the help that I had. Because even if I could've somehow put myself through the process of doing the first application there is no way I would've known or understood that the first rejection is part of the process. I would've assumed rejection meant rejection and I was shit out of luck.

Also consider: I had private disability paying my bills during all this and I had savings. I had the luxury of having the finances to buy me the time it takes for the first application to be compiled, sent in, rejected, and then to move on to the time it takes to do step two.

It takes no brainpower whatsoever to consider how screwed somebody is who doesn't have savings, doesn't have private insurance, and doesn't have help. I'm amazed anybody even bothers to apply at all! What in the hell are they supposed to do to pay for food and shelter while all this is going on? (ETA: In a great bit of timing, the newsletter Sick Note posted this article about someone else’s experiences applying for SSDI which goes into detail about that very thing.)

I have no idea. I can't imagine. It's absolutely ridiculous and an utterly fucked up system. Nobody should be having to deal with a debilitating illness and all these hoops and obstacles they have to fight through in order to get even a tiny amount of help. Nobody.

And that's just step one! Just wait until you hear how much fun I had going through step two.

But that's a future newsletter.

Read the Series:


Want to help support the site and get access to the Bonus Content? Sign up for a paid subscription or donate via Ko-Fi. Thank you!