Is Tinnitus Eligible for Disability?

Doctor with the words Tinnitus in his hand.

At first, that ringing in your ears is maybe a bit obnoxious–a nuisance and little else. But over time, the non-stop noise seemed to grow more intense, becoming harder to ignore. Maybe the ringing or buzzing even gets to the point where it becomes difficult to understand your daughter on the phone or your co-workers in a meeting.

As the ringing in your ear becomes worse, at what point should you start thinking about applying for disability protections and benefits?

The short answer is that it’s complicated and more complicated than it probably ought to be. Disability laws can be byzantine, and it’s not always immediately clear where you should turn to for help. It can be a challenge to know when your tinnitus reaches the point where you become eligible for disability benefits.

What is tinnitus? Is tinnitus a disability?

Of course, the question of whether tinnitus is itself a disability is a totally different question than whether you might qualify for disability benefits. Tinnitus, essentially, is a condition in which an individual experiences a ringing, buzzing, or other noise in the ears. Tinnitus can be temporary (as when you exit a loud music concert) or chronic (often, but not always, the result of repeated exposures to damaging levels of sound).

If you have chronic tinnitus, there’s no known cure. But there are a number of treatment options that can help you manage your symptoms and maintain your overall quality of life. The point at which tinnitus becomes a disability, in this sense, is then quite subjective.

Within the hard-of-hearing community, the general consensus is that something becomes a disability when it starts to interfere with your life. And, as the individual with tinnitus, you have the option to adopt this definition or not. You can take it or leave it–that’s the nice thing about this particular socially construed definition.

The law gets complicated

That’s not the case when it comes to the law. The law is complicated. And you have to follow it. When most people ask about eligibility for disability, they’re referring to disability benefits provided by the government.

And how do you qualify for those particular benefits? It’s… a process. There are several important pieces of data:

  • Your primary medical records: In many cases, officials will examine medical records provided by your primary care physician. They’ll be looking through your physician’s notes for evidence of a physical disability that interferes with aspects of your life.
  • Additional medical records from specialists: It’s not uncommon to collect medical records from a wide variety of specialists, and the government may wish to look at those as well. Less commonly, they may wish to have one of their own physicians take a look at you.
  • Evidence of disability: It might not be enough that there’s something medically amiss with your ears. Chronic tinnitus has plenty of medical markers that make it relatively easy to diagnose. But the government may also want evidence that your impairment has negatively impacted your quality of life (such as making it more difficult to work or impeding your ability to find transportation–that kind of thing).

In most cases, to qualify for disability benefits, you’ll need to prove two things: first, that you have an impairment and, second, that the identified impairment keeps you from participating in certain activities or impacts your quality of life. They will also look at the likelihood of the condition is an ongoing issue.

The more evidence you can bring to bear in that regard, the more likely your request for benefits will be approved.

Not an automated process

Under almost every law, receiving disability benefits–for anything, not just for tinnitus–is not an automated process. You’ll need to apply for benefits in one form or another. Tinnitus can be a debilitating condition. And while treatments can bring about an improvement in symptom management, it will make sense for some individuals to apply for disability benefits.

Only you can make that decision, of course. Once you do, there’s a process… and a few forms to fill out (it’s a lot of forms. A lot). But for many hard-of-hearing individuals, that process is worth the benefits that result.

Want more information?

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