April 11, 2016

What are ADLs, and why does Social Security care so much if I go on vacation or keep my house clean?

Many of my clients do not understand why the Social Security Administration (SSA) is so interested in their day-to-day activities.  It might help to think about it this way: since you are not able to work, Social Security can’t ask you how your current symptoms affect your work activities.  Therefore, they have to look instead at what you are actually able (or unable) to do in your daily life.  Social Security refers to these things as your “Activities of Daily Living,” or ADLs.

During the Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) and Supplemental Security Income (SSI) application process, Social Security sends each claimant a questionnaire called an Adult Function Report.  This form asks specific questions about how your impairments affect your ability to do what you need to do to get through a typical day.  Similarly, the Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) at your hearing will ask questions about your ADLs, including your ability to:

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  • Clean your house (sweep, mop, dust, wash dishes, etc.)
  • Shop for groceries
  • Take care of your yard
  • Drive a car
  • Bathe, shower, and take care of your personal hygiene
  • Dress yourself
  • Do laundry
  • Cook or prepare meals
  • Care for children, other family members, or pets
  • Participate in hobbies
  • Spend time with friends
  • Travel on vacations

When you answer questions about your ADLs, it’s important to keep in mind why Social Security is asking them.  The ALJ is not trying to find out of you are a conscientious housekeeper or if you are an interesting person to hang out with.  It can be really hard – embarrassing, even – to admit that you aren’t able to take a shower or wash your dishes as often as you think you should.  It is painful for a lot of my clients to realize that it has been years since they were able to participate in their favorite hobbies.  It is vital, though, that you tell the judge what your life is really like – not the way you’d like it to be or the way it used to be.

Additionally, it is important to explain your answers to the judge’s questions about your ADLs rather than simply giving one-word “yes” or “no” answers.  You need to fully explain any limitations you may have.  Most people can drive, but if you are limited to rare, very short trips, you need to say that.  If you can go grocery shopping, but you need the electric cart to get around or can only go at three o’clock in the morning when there’s nobody else in the store, explain that to the judge.  If you can lightly clean your house but must take a break every fifteen minutes to rest, the SSA needs to know that too.  If you don’t bathe or shower as often as you should, or if you need help getting into and out of the tub, or if you need help washing your hair or shaving, you need to express that to the SSA.  I hope you are starting to see that simply saying “Yes, I can do that,” might imply that you are functioning at a higher level than you actually are.  In my experience, the SSA and the ALJ will take your answers at face value.  If you have any types of limitations in your daily activities, you need to spell them out, even if they seem obvious to you.

I have sat through hundreds of hearings in which I knew my clients were more limited than they were testifying to.  It may have been they were nervous, or that they did not want to admit they were so limited, or they simply did not understand why the questions were being asked.  I have read unfavorable decisions in which an ALJ cited my client’s hearing testimony to support a finding that they could do things that I knew they could not do.  When I prepare my clients for their day in court, I review the ADL questions and explain the difference between a good answer and a bad one.  It is important to be honest with the SSA and with the judge, but honesty includes providing thorough responses about your limitations.  Many of my clients have said to me, “I wish the judge could walk in my shoes for a few days; then he’d understand what I was going through.”  We don’t have a way to make that happen, so it’s up to you to help the judge understand by providing thoughtful, honest, thorough descriptions of your activities of daily living.

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