The Social Security Disability “Listings”​: So Important, Yet So Misunderstood

Social Security Disability Insurance Benefits are widely misunderstood. It’s understandable: few of us contemplate the possibility that we will become disabled and unable to work in the future.

Our failure to understand what social security disability benefits are and are not,  and what it takes to secure them, is only exacerbated by the complexity, obtuse terminology and downright strangeness of the disability assessment system. A prime example are the so-called “Listings”.

What is a Listed Impairment for Social Security Disability Benefits?

Social security regulations include a set of medical criteria for medical conditions often referred to as the “Listings”. These criteria represent the consensus in the medical community on what test results, features and/or symptoms for a given disease represent a medical condition that precludes the ability to work.

OK – I am being a little lawyerly, aren’t it? Here is a perhaps silly but helpful way to look at:

Consider the listing for the medical condition of chronic venous insufficiency was set out like a familiar TV commercial style for a medication. The “paid spokesman” in my silly TV ad might say something like this:

“Did you know that 9 out of 10 medical experts agree you deserve disability benefits for your chronic venous insufficiency if you have:

  • Chronic venous insufficiency of a lower extremity with incompetency or obstruction of the deep venous system AND
  • Extensive brawny edema involving at least two-thirds of the leg between the ankle and knee OR
  • Extensive brawny edema involving at least the distal one-third of the lower extremity between the ankle and hip OR
  • Superficial varicosities, stasis dermatitis, and either recurrent ulceration or persistent ulceration that has not healed following at least 3 months of prescribed treatment?”

OK I did not say it would be a great commercial. Perhaps a better way to look at it is to focus on the key phrase “Listing”. We can say that a “Listing” is a list of the diagnostic test results or symptoms for a given condition that mean that person deserves to be on disability.

Listings are a “Short Cut” to a Favorable Disability Finding

The social security administration uses a “sequential evaluation process” (see what I meant above by “obtuse terminology”?) : a step by step analysis for every case regardless of the medical condition concerned.

“Meeting a listing” refers to the disability decisionmaker, in following the sequential evaluation process, finding the criteria for the listed condition being meet. I like to analogize “meeting a listing” to the judge finding a “short cut” to a favorable decision.

There is, however, widespread confusion about what NOT “meeting a listing” means. It does NOT mean the case is denied. It simply means the judge/decisionmaker must move on to the next step in the sequential evaluation process.

All Medical Conditions that Can Be the Basis for Social Security Disability Benefits Do Not have a “Listing”

I often encounter people who think their disability cannot be approved because there is no Listing for their malady. Incorrect. The Listings simply represent the more common medical or mental conditions, but are not intended to address all diseases and illnesses.


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