Woman in wheelchair types on her laptop in a cozy home office

Your Guide to Applying for Disability Benefits for MS

By Ann Pietrangelo
Reviewed by Dana Cooper, M.D.
August 04, 2023

It’s possible for some people with multiple sclerosis (MS) to continue working indefinitely. But research suggests that about 70% of people with MS are no longer working 10 years after their diagnosis. How long a person can work may depend on how severe their symptoms are and, of course, the type of work they do.

Medical treatment and assistive devices may be the only help some people need to continue working. And asking for reasonable accommodations as spelled out in the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) can also keep people with MS working as long as possible.

Even so, at some point you may find that you can’t work full time anymore. That’s where Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) comes in. Applying can be a long and potentially intimidating process, but you can minimize frustration by learning how it works before taking that first step.

What Is SSDI?

Social Security Disability Insurance is a federal insurance program for people with disabilities who can’t work long-term, at least 12 months.

The program pays you if you’ve previously worked long enough and have paid a certain amount of Social Security taxes. Specifically, you may be insured if you’ve earned 20 work credits in the past 10 years. Work credits are based on total yearly wages, and the amount of income required to get a work credit varies year to year. If you’re unsure of the math, the Social Security Administration (SSA) website has a table of credits needed for disability benefits to help you understand how many years of work you generally need to qualify.

Does My MS Mean I Qualify for SSDI?

Your MS needs to cause a certain level of impairment for you to be covered by SSDI. The SSA lists MS as severe enough for disability insurance when it’s characterized by “extreme limitations” in the arms and legs, or “marked limitations” in physical function and in certain cognitive functions. These include:

  • Understanding, remembering, or applying information, like instructions
  • Interacting with others, including cooperation and conflict resolution
  • Concentrating, staying on task at a consistent pace, and avoiding distractions
  • Adapting or managing your emotions and behaviors appropriately

How Your Neurologist Can Help You Apply

Your neurologist is one of your best partners in the SSDI process because they can assess and help document your disability.

During an office visit, you should talk to your doctor about how MS is affecting your ability to work, says Andrew L. Smith, M.D., a board-certified neurologist at OhioHealth in Columbus. If recommended accommodations aren’t possible or sufficient, it may be time to discuss disability issues.

Smith says additional testing may be needed, including what’s called a functional capacity evaluation (FCE). This testing can be done by an occupational therapist or physical medicine and rehabilitation (PM&R) doctor. It can help gauge your:

  • Endurance
  • Strength
  • Range of motion
  • Ability to stay in certain positions
  • Balance
  • Dexterity of the hands and fingers

Neuropsychiatric testing may also be in order. “This is invaluable, particularly when the patient’s cognitive impairment is subtle or could be affected by comorbid depression and anxiety,” Smith says.

How Do I Apply for SSDI, and How Long Does It Take?

If you and your doctor agree that filing for disability is the right decision for you, you can apply for SSDI in person, by phone, or online. Start by reviewing the Adult Disability Checklist from the SSA so you’ll know exactly how to prepare and what information to gather. To begin the online process, go to the Apply for Benefits page.

You may need to be patient after you submit. “Response times for initial decisions vary greatly across the country,” says attorney Jaime R. Hall, who has helped people with MS seeking SSDI benefits in 24 states. “In Pennsylvania, initial level decisions are generally issued within five months. In Florida, the initial review process often does not even begin until 200 days after the claim is filed.” It may help to check in with an attorney who’s familiar with SSDI in your state.

As one Twill Care member has shared, “The process can be long, but you will be back paid when you are awarded disability from the date you filed.”

If You’ve Been Denied SSDI

Denial is common. At this point, you should appeal by requesting reconsideration, Hall says. Don’t file a new claim—if you file a new claim instead of an appeal, you lose the right to request benefits prior to that denial date.

According to Hall, 87% of people get denied at reconsideration, as well. “These individuals should consider requesting a hearing, which is where most claims are approved. Many well-supported claims have to go to a hearing, and claimants should not be discouraged by a denial. This is why appeals exist!” Hall explains.

This all takes time. Denials at the initial level can take five months for a decision on reconsideration, then another eight to 14 months for a new hearing, Hall says.

Can I Continue Working While I Apply?

Through all this waiting, you may wonder if you can continue working. The answer is yes, but there are strict rules.

“The claimant has to leave full-time work or significantly reduce hours and income prior to filing for a disability claim,” Hall says. He recommends:

  • Staying under 20 hours a week
  • Significantly limiting your earnings
  • Only engaging in work consistent with your disability

Other Tips for Success with SSDI

Taking certain steps can help make the process of applying for and receiving SSDI benefits for your MS easier. Keep these tips in mind.

1. Document, Document, Document

Even if you’re not ready to think about SSDI right now, it pays to organize your medical, employment, and tax histories early. Document your difficulties on the job as you go. It’s a lot easier than trying to recreate from memory later.

Others may have input as well. “It really helps to have the people closest to you and even your colleagues and supervisors write a letter describing how the disease affects your daily living and working performance. I was missing a lot of work so my supervisor wrote a letter for me on how difficult working was for me,” a Twill Care member shared.

2. Get the Social Security Disability Starter Kit

The Starter Kit includes everything you need to get going—even interview preparation tips for if you’re applying in person or by phone.

3. Consider Contacting an Attorney

Working with a disability lawyer may be especially useful if your first application gets denied. Hall notes that attorneys only get paid if you get approved, too.

You may need to work with more than one attorney to find one who’s a good fit for you. “It took me six years and I don’t think I would ever have gotten my SSDI if I hadn’t switched lawyers,” a member said.

Living with MS has its challenges, but it doesn’t necessarily mean you have to stop working. Should the need arise, though, you may be entitled to benefits. If you’re overwhelmed with the process, your local SSA office can help you find a representative to assist. You don’t have to go it alone.

You May Also Like: