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Questions are going to be asked of you at the hearing about your:

  1. Work history
  2. Education
  3. Medical history
  4. Symptoms
  5. Your estimate of your work limitations (large emphasis)
  6. Your daily activities (large emphasis)

Work and Educational History

For work history, you will be asked to describe job duties on your last job and on all significant jobs you've had during the past fifteen years. The judge will want to know how much weight you had to lift on each job and about how much time during the workday that you spent sitting, standing and walking on each job. And he'll be interested in difficulties you had performing past jobs because of your health and why you left each former job, especially your last job.

The judge will also ask about job skills. If you have had semi-skilled or skilled work, it is important that you describe your skills accurately. Remember, though, this hearing is not like a job interview in which a person often has a tendency to try to puff up his job skills. Guard against any such tendency.

One test for determining the degree of skill involved in a job is how long it takes to learn to do that job. Be prepared to estimate how long it would take for an average person to learn to do your past job.

For education, you'll be asked the highest grade you completed in school, whether you had any training in the military, whether you have had any formal vocational training or on-the-job training. 

There usually are few problems in explaining work and educational history. If you have difficulty explaining why you can't now perform one of the jobs that you have done in the past 15 years, you'll want to go over this with your lawyer before your hearing. If you have recently completed some schooling which might qualify you for a skilled job, be sure your lawyer knows all about this schooling.

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Estimate How Often You Have Pain or Other Symptoms

If your symptoms come and go, be prepared to explain how often this happens. Some people don't give enough information, especially when the frequency of symptoms varies a lot. It is never a good answer to say that something happens "sometimes." The judge could conclude that "sometimes" means that your symptoms occur only a few times per year - which is not enough to be disabling. When the frequency of symptoms varies a lot, a lot of explanation and examples are necessary. For example, tell how often symptoms occur in a usual week. If you have weeks with no symptoms, estimate how many weeks out of a year are like that. The more information you give about how often you have symptoms, the better understanding the judge will have about why your symptoms keep you from working.

Estimate How Long Your Pain or Other Symptoms Last

For symptoms that come and go, be prepared to explain how long they last. Try to explain this without using the word "sometimes." Use the word "usually," then estimate how often the symptoms last longer and how often the symptoms are shorter.

Estimate the Intensity of Your Symptoms

You may be asked if your pain and other symptoms vary in intensity. If so, do your best to describe how your pain and other symptoms vary in intensity during a usual day or over a usual week. Often it is best to use the 1 to 10 scale sometimes used by therapists and doctors. On this scale 1 is essentially no pain and 10 is the worst pain you've ever had. Be sure you understand this scale and use it correctly without exaggerating. Think about the worst pain you ever had. Did it cause you to go to the emergency room? Did you lie in your bed writhing in pain, finding it difficult to get up even to go to the bathroom? Did it cause you to roll up into a fetal position? These are the images that the judge will have about what it means to have pain at a 10 level. Some people with disability claims have pain that gets to this level once in a while. Most do not. People who testify that their pain is frequently at the 10 level do not understand the scale. Most judges will conclude that someone who testifies that his or her pain is at a 10 level during a hearing is not to be believed -- because judges think there is no way a person could be at a hearing with pain that bad.

Estimate of Limitations

The judge will ask you how far you can walk, how much you can lift, how long you can stand, how long you can sit, etc. You must give the judge a genuine estimate of what you can do. So it is important to think about these things before your hearing.

If a friend asks you how far you can walk, you probably start thinking of places you have walked recently, how you felt when you got there, whether you had to stop and rest along the way, and so forth. You are likely to answer his question by giving one or more examples of places you have walked recently. If the judge asks this question, answer it the same way. Talk to the judge the same way that you would talk to an old friend.

A Social Security hearing is not a court hearing. If you are familiar with court hearings or have watched lawyer shows on television, wipe such things from your mind. In court hearings, lawyers are always advising people, "don't volunteer." What lawyers mean, of course, is don't give any examples or details, wait for the lawyer to ask. In Social Security hearings, this rule about not volunteering does not apply and, indeed, if you don't "volunteer" information, you may not be giving the judge as much information as he needs in order to decide your case.

Let's look at some examples. You decide which testimony is best. The person who has been advised by a lawyer not to volunteer in answering a question may answer this way:

ALJ: How far can you walk?
Claimant: Two blocks.
A person who talks to a judge the same way he talks to a friend, as we're advising you to do, will answer the question this way:
ALJ: How far can you walk?
Claimant: Judge, I can't walk more than about 2 blocks without stopping to rest. Just yesterday, I went to the store which is only about a block and a half from my house. By the time I got there, my back felt like it had a hot spike driven into it. I started limping. All I bought at the store was a loaf of bread. I could barely carry it home. On the way home, I had to stop three times because my back hurt so much. When I got home I sat down in my recliner chair and put my legs up before I even put the bread away.
Beware: Some Judges want a specific number of feet you can walk as opposed to blocks.

As you can see, the person who talks to the judge as an old friend provides a lot of important information, some good examples and some relevant details.

Also, be aware that there is a built-in ambiguity in a judge's question concerning how long you can stand, how much you can lift, how far you can walk, and so forth. Judges always ask the question just that way: "How long can you stand?" The question should not be interpreted to mean, "How long can you stand before you are in so much pain that you must go home and go to bed?" What the judge needs to know, of course, is how long you can stand in a work situation where you must stand for awhile, are allowed to sit down, and then must stand again.

Many times it is best to answer the question more than one way. You might give the judge an example of overdoing it and having to go lie down. But if you give the judge that example, be sure to fully explain it. Be sure to explain that, for example, when you washed Thanksgiving dinner dishes for an hour, you had to go lie down for a half an hour. Otherwise, it will show up in the judge's decision that you have the capacity to stand for one hour at a time, when your true capacity in a work situation is much less. But also give other examples that demonstrate the work situation: for example, if you are going to stand for a period of time, then sit, then stand again, this second standing time may be much shorter.

The problem that we have with the way these questions are asked is even worse when the question comes to sitting. This sort of exchange happens all the time:

ALJ: How long can you sit?
Claimant: Twenty minutes.
When the judge hears this answer, the judge looks at a clock and writes down that the claimant had been sitting there for forty minutes when he answered that question. Thus, the judge concludes that this claimant is a liar.
What this claimant meant, of course, is that he could sit for 20 minutes in a work situation, then stand or walk for awhile and return to sitting. In all likelihood, a claimant with a sitting problem, after forcing himself to sit through an hour-long Social Security hearing will go home and lie down for a long time in order to relieve the pain in his back. He answered the question truthfully. He can only sit for about 20 minutes in a work situation. If he forces himself, he can sit longer but then it takes some time to recuperate. It is important to explain all this to the judge so he can understand what you are able to do day in and day out in a work situation.
Here is an example of a good answer to a question about sitting:
ALJ: How long can you sit?
Claimant: If I force myself, I can sit here for perhaps a whole hour; but I'll have to go home and lie down and I won't be much good for the rest of the day. When I am trying to do things around the house, like pay bills, I only sit for about 20 minutes at a time and then I get up and walk around for 15 or 20 minutes before I go back to sitting. If I were on a job where I could change positions between sitting and standing or walking, the length of time that I could sit would get shorter as the day wore on. Sitting is really hard on my back. It's better, though, if I can sit in my recliner chair with my legs up. I can sit in that chair for a long time but I find it really hard, for example, to pay bills sitting in that chair. I usually sit at the dining room table when I pay bills.

Another problem comes up when you have good days and bad days. For example, on good days, you might be able to sit or stand or walk for much longer than you can on a bad day. If you have good days and bad days, describe what it's like on a good day and what it's like on a bad day. Be prepared, though, for the judge to ask you for your estimate of how many days out of a month are good days and how many days are bad days. A lot of people answer such questions as, "well, I never counted them." Count them. The judge will need this information.

It is important that you give specific estimates about your problems. For example, if you tell the judge you have a particular problem "occasionally" or "once in a while," without further explanation, the judge won't know if you have the problem once a week or once a year. And there is a big difference.

To give good testimony about your limitations, it is really important for you to know yourself, know your limitations, and neither exaggerate nor minimize them. This is hard to do. You will need to think about it, perhaps discuss your limitations with family members and definitely discuss these limitations with your attorney before the hearing.

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