Inability to Speak English No Longer Considered in Federal Disability Programs

February 26, 2020 Updated: February 26, 2020

The U.S. Social Security Administration (SSA) has removed a Carter-era rule that makes lacking proficiency in English a factor when determining who qualifies to receive federal disability benefits.

The new SSA regulation, “Removing the Inability to Communicate in English as an Education Category,” updates a disability rule that remained unchanged since it was first introduced in 1978.

From April 27 the SSA will no longer consider a person’s “inability to communicate in English” when reviewing applications, for both Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) and Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits.

Social Security Commissioner Andrew Saul said in a Feb. 24 press release that the removal of the English rule was made because being unable to read, write, or speak English is not as much of a barrier it used to be in American society during the 1970s.

“It is important that we have an up-to-date disability program,” Saul said. “The workforce and work opportunities have changed and outdated regulations need to be revised to reflect today’s world.”

The SSA practices a five-step evaluation process for its disability benefit programs, and factors such as education and work experience come into consideration only if the applicants reach the fifth step. To get there, the applicant must be at least 45 years old and have to prove his or her severe long-term physical or mental impairments using medical evidence. The SSA will then look at work the applicant has done in the past 15 years, and determine if the person can return to one of those jobs or be transfer to a sedentary job.

Under the 1978 English rule, on the assumption that it’s impossible for someone who is older than 45 and speaks no or poor English to switch to any desk job, the SSA might approve the disability benefits application.

“The purpose of this final rule is not to save money or to make it more difficult for individuals to qualify for disability benefits,” the SSA replied to a public comment questioning the intention of the new regulation. “Rather, we anticipate that this final rule will allow us to better assess the vocational impact of an individual’s education on their ability to work in the contemporary work environment.”

It is important to note that being unable to communicate in English itself has never been considered a disability. It has been, however, a factor that might increase the chances of approval for federal disability benefits for those who already have severe physical or mental disabilities.