As of April 27, the government no longer takes the inability to speak English into account when making a decision around social security disability benefits. 

The change revises a policy that had been in place since 1978 requiring the Social Security Administration (SSA) to consider a person’s inability to speak English when determining whether a person is eligible to receive disability benefits or return to work. Before the change, proficiency in English was an influencing factor for people age 45 and older when the SSA made their decision. One of the reasons why the ability to speak English was a deciding factor was that the SSA considered it a reinforcement of the worker’s education level. Education is still a deciding factor when determining whether a person qualifies for benefits.

The Inability to Speak English and Education Levels

It was believed that the inability to communicate in English counteracted the worker’s education level and ability to perform labor. What helped lead to the decision to eliminate this factor was the data collected from SSDI applicants, which found that people who were unable to speak, read, or write in English often reported that they had at least a high school education.

Additionally, a study conducted by Brookings Institution found that a lack of proficiency of English doesn’t affect a low-skilled worker’s ability to gain employment.

Despite the SSA’s decision that the inability to speak English doesn’t affect a person’s ability to rejoin the workforce, some oppose the SSA’s removal of this factor. National elder law advocacy group Justice in Aging stated that the organization didn’t have sufficient evidence to make the change, while also claiming that the change doesn’t consider the limitations for potential employment resulting from language barriers.

Other Changes Being Made to SSDI Eligibility

In addition to the removal of English proficiency as a factor when deciding on disability benefits, the SSA has proposed other changes to SSDI eligibility. In February, the administration discussed changes to recipients’ medical classifications.

Currently, disability is divided into three main categories, and each has a specific timeline for the frequency of reviews needed to determine if a person is still eligible to receive disability benefits. The proposed change would increase the frequency of reviews for certain individuals, which could make it harder for some to consistently qualify for benefits.

It’s still unclear what other changes the SSA may have planned for disability benefits.