If you have sustained an injury, illness, or other condition that leaves you unable to work, you may be entitled to disability benefits. However, obtaining Social Security disability benefits is not simply a matter of filling out a form. You, the injured party, must prove that you are disabled; keeping a disability diary will help you to do so.
How “Disabled” Is Defined
Understanding the definition of “disabled” is a good place to start. According to the Social Security Administration (SSA), having a “disability” means that you are unable “to engage in any substantial gainful activity because of a medically-determinable physical or mental impairment.” Additionally, this impairment must have lasted, or be expected to last, for at least 12 consecutive months. Alternatively, if the impairment will ultimately result in death, you may qualify for disability benefits. Note, however, that both conditions must be met. If you have been diagnosed with an ailment that will eventually result in death, but you are able bodied now, you may not qualify for disability benefits because you are currently able to engage in “substantial gainful activity.”
What Is a Disability Diary?
A disability diary is a place where you document, on a daily basis, various things that relate to your condition and your life at present. It doesn’t have to be fancy. A simple dime store notebook will do. The key is to make sure all your entries are in the same notebook, so nothing is left out or forgotten.
What Should Be Included in a Disability Diary?
Health Related Visits
All activities pertaining to your health should be included in the disability diary. This will include visits to your treating physician and any specialists you are referred to. It should also include such things as visits to a chiropractor or massage therapist. If you are unsure if a visit to a professional “counts” as a health related visit, you should include it in your diary. Your attorney, in conjunction with your treating physician, will be able to make a determination about what qualifies and what doesn’t.
Compliance with Doctor’s Orders
It is critical that you comply with your doctor’s orders. You should document your compliance in your disability diary. If you are suffering a mental impairment and your doctor prescribes you medication, you must take the medication. It is not uncommon for persons with mental impairments to experience unpleasant side effects from certain medications. Since every person’s body is different, the side effects a given person experiences cannot always be predicted. If you find you are experiencing unpleasant side effects, talk to your doctor about changing either the dose or the actual prescription itself. Many people find a medication that works well for them after some trial and error. Do not simply take yourself off any medication without first consulting with your treating physician.
Similarly, if you have been assigned exercises by your treating physician, or a physical therapist, document that you have performed the exercises as prescribed. This gives SSA concrete evidence of your compliance.
Documented Symptoms and Pain Levels
If you are in pain, document this. A pain scale may be used for this purpose. Make sure that you come up with a reasonable scale and put that within the disability diary. For example, 1 = little to no pain; 3 = pain that can be treated with medication; 5 = pain that can almost be treated with medication; 8 = pain that medication doesn’t alleviate; and 10 = can’t get out of bed because the pain is so great.
Be thoughtful about your assessments. It is unlikely that your pain is at a level 10 every day of the week, for every minute of the day. You will be testifying to these facts and figures, and it is essential that you accurately report your condition.
Also document any of your other symptoms, such as if you are experiencing a particular bout of fatigue, depression, anxiety, etc. Indicate how long the symptoms or pain lasted, what you did to try to treat your symptoms or alleviate your pain, and whether such treatment(s) worked.
Limitations on Activities
Recall the standard is whether or not you are able to engage in any substantial gainful activity. If you find that you are unable to make yourself breakfast, document that in your disability diary. If you experience a day where you can’t lift a cup of coffee, document that. If you have seizures as part of your disability, it is critical that you document their frequency, length, and intensity. Frequency, length, and intensity of any symptom that brings you pain, discomfort, or otherwise impairs with your gainful activity should be documented.
If you are unsure as to whether or not a limitation should be documented, record it in your diary. Even small things, such as, “It took me an extra 45 minutes to get out of bed,” should be documented. Use concrete examples to describe your symptoms. In addition to saying, “Pain level is an 8 today,” include, “took prescribed pain medication at 8:00 a.m., pain lessened to a 5 by 10:00 a.m.” You may also include where the pain is located and describe the pain, such as, “sharp pain in my chest” or “achy, sore and weakening pain in my right knee.”
Symptom Free Days
Many conditions vary in intensity. If you have a symptom free day, good for you! Be sure to document this in your disability diary as well. If you have a condition with symptoms that vary, yet you yourself never document good days, this could raise suspicions. Symptom free days, in and of themselves, will not preclude you from obtaining disability benefits, assuming you meet the general requirements overall. The key is to provide a complete picture.
The Benefits of Documentation
You may not have a hearing for over a year from when you first applied for Social Security Disability benefits. In that time, your memory will naturally fade. Having a disability diary is a real time reflection of your disability. The two biggest mistakes people make at a Social Security Disability hearing are over representing and under representing their condition. This may be true even if the conduct is unintentional. Having your disability diary with you – both for your personal review as well as for the hearing officer, will ensure that you are accurately representing your condition. The disability diary will also provide a detailed account of how your disability has impacted your life.