Social Security Disability Benefits for Individuals with Traumatic Brain Injury

by Cheryl Coon

Although traumatic brain injury is not specifically listed as impairment in the Social Security Administration manual, it is included under the heading of cerebral trauma. The manual provides, in short, that traumatic brain injury cases will be evaluated primarily according to neurological criteria.

If you’ve suffered a brain injury and can’t work as a result, you may be eligible for Social Security disability benefits. When the Social Security Administration (SSA) evaluates your claim, SSA will look at the limitations that result from your brain injury, rather than the injury itself, to evaluate how these limitations may make you unable to work fulltime.

Even if your symptoms don’t seem severe, a brain injury can affect your life in many ways – some of which you may not notice but people around you might see. In addition, your symptoms will develop and change over time.

Because the brain controls your entire body, you may experience a wide range of symptoms. Look for any of the following:

  • cognitive disabilities (trouble paying attention, impaired judgment, short-term and long-term memory loss)
  • communication problems (aphasia/difficulty finding words, dysarthria/difficulty speaking, prosodic dysfunction/difficulty with tone of voice)
  • sensory problems (problems with vision or visual processing, tinnitus or hearing noises, feeling itching, tingling or pain without an obvious source)

Depending on the location of your brain injury, you may notice a variety of emotional changes too. Friends and family can help you identify these if you’re unsure:

  • depression
  • anxiety disorders
  • mania or bipolar disorder
  • obsessive-compulsive disorder
  • panic disorders
  • insomnia
  • loss of inhibition
  • impulsiveness
  • aggression
  • loss of initiative or pleasure in formerly enjoyable activities

Brain injuries can also cause a variety of physical symptoms:

  • blood clots
  • post-traumatic seizures
  • ataxia, myoclonus, and other muscle/motor disorders
  • hydrocephalus
  • vasospasm (constriction of blood vessels)
  • aneurysms
  • hormone imbalance, including hypothyroidism

This is not a complete list — if you experience other symptoms, or notice changes in your behavior and personality, be sure to talk to your doctor about how they may relate to your brain injury.

If a disability decision cannot be made on medical factors alone, your situation will be evaluated based on a variety of physical and/or mental limitations you may have that prevent you from working. These include:

  • How well you can perform physical tasks such as walking, standing, lifting, carrying, pushing, pulling, reaching, and handling objects; or
  • How well you can perform mental tasks such as understanding, carrying out, and remembering instructions; responding appropriately to supervision and co-workers; and dealing with work pressures.

Improve Your Chances for Obtaining Benefits!

  • See a doctor regularly and take the medication that he/she gives you so that your doctor can support your application for benefits.
  • Use a calendar to jot down notes about how you feel each day.  Ask family member to also keep notes of your functioning.
  • Record any of your usual activities you could not do on any given day.
  • Ask your doctor or other health care professional to track the course of your symptoms and to keep a record of any evidence of fatigue, depression, forgetfulness, dizziness, or other hard-to-document symptoms.
  • Keep records of how your illness affected you on the job.

Cheryl Coon is an attorney with Swanson Thomas Coon and Newton and can be reached at or (503) 228-5222.  She is a past Board member of the Brain Injury Alliance of Oregon and a supporter of BIRRDsong.  Her practice is exclusively social security disability benefits and she helps people from initial application through federal court appeals.  Swanson Thomas Coon & Newton also represents people with brain injuries in personal injury cases and workers compensation.


Pointers for applying for Social Security Disability benefits

BIRRDsong Peer Support Coordinator Brian Liebenstein has some great pointers to share. If you are thinking about applying for Social Security Disability Benefits, read on!!

With Labor Day right around the corner, we should discuss how having a brain injury compromises the ability to labor. There are bound to be difficulties when the ability to concentrate, focus, and safely complete a task become compromised. Sadly, for many in the brain-injured community, such problems are not readily recognized. They are often dismissed as laziness or unwillingness to work. Because of this, there are some items to consider as you apply for Social Security Disability.

1. Write down all deadlines you are given and provide the information required as soon as possible. Don’t be afraid to add any information regarding the difficulties caused by a brain injury. This is important even if it doesn’t seem pertinent to your ability to work.

2. You will need verifiable sources for problems. This is an area where friends and family might be of great help. They can assist with lists of job needs, school requirements, or similar records. This information will show how your brain injury affects your capabilities. Having reports of difficulties in your work will prove beneficial in establishing the presence of a disability.

3. Do not be afraid to use the varied law firms which can provide representation in disability cases. Again, as you go to seek legal counsel, it is helpful to have documentation. This could be a report from a neuropsychologist or other tests of brain function. It could be that you were reported as constantly late or inattentive to certain tasks at work. However, the truth is that your injury affected the brain functions required to fulfill the task involved. Conveying such information correctly is better left in the hands of professionals.

4. Sometimes enough ability remains to reestablish a work situation. Checking with state employment personnel can determine if it is possible to do some work. You can often do this while still being entitled to disability payments. Do not let pride or stubbornness blind you to the difficulties resulting from a brain injury. You may need to accept disability payments for a while. You can find alternative ways to work where you can use your remaining talents.
If you keep asking for others’ input you can expect good results, but reaching your goal will take time. However, your labor to establish your inability to labor was worth the time and effort.