How to Answer the Question: “Why Can’t You Work?”

Robin Mead

If you are applying for disability, you may be asked this question by the Social Security doctor or by your own doctor or at a hearing or when filling out forms.

The question may not be phrased this way exactly, but the general topic will certainly come up at some point, so it is a great question to ask yourself now, and to think about, and to get comfortable answering.


It is helpful if you can describe if there are any medical reasons you cannot work. Social Security cannot consider other kinds of reasons.

Examples of medical reasons:

🌷 Medical reasons might include difficulties sitting, standing, walking, stooping, bending, lifting, grasping, twisting, stooping, etc.

🌷 Medical reasons can also include cognitive problems with focusing, remembering or concentrating.

🌷 Medical reasons can also be side effects you have from medication that make it difficult for you to function.

🌷 For some mental health conditions, medical reasons can also be inability to interact with others in an appropriate way for a workplace.

🌷 Medical reasons can also be limitations your doctor has written in a letter or RFC form: number of rest breaks per day, how often you need to lie down or stand up, number of absences per month due to medical care or illness, etc.

🌷 More examples of medical reasons can be found on RFC forms.

🌷 If you are having trouble remembering or figuring out what your medical limitations are, you can try to Keep a Symptom Diary


Social Security cannot consider non-medical reasons. For example:

🌷 They will not consider if you have no transportation

🌷 They will not consider if no one wants to hire you

🌷 They will not consider if you can’t get childcare

🌷 They will not consider if you have a bad boss

If you cannot drive because of your symptoms, they may still decide that you can work. Many jobs do not involve driving. The fact that you cannot find another way to get to work will not be considered.


Imagine some magical world where you have a some super easy, sedentary job. A sedentary job is a job where you do not have to stand up or do any physical activity.

Let’s say you wake up in the morning and *poof* you are magically transported to this super easy sedentary job. You also have a nice understanding boss, no problems with child care, and you can afford to live on whatever this nice job pays.

Are there any reasons you still cannot do this job?


🌷 If you are over the age of fifty, in some cases, you may get approved even if you can do a sedentary job. However, it can be more difficult or take longer to be approved this way.

🌷 If you are going to a hearing, your lawyer may be able to assist you with trying to get approved this way.

🌷 These rules are called the Medical Vocational Grid Rules.


🌷  In some situations, you can be approved if you can work part time, but you are medically unable to work full time (earn more than SGA).

🌷  If you are working part time while applying, it is still possible to get approved, but may be more difficult.

🌷  If you are currently working, you can apply if you are earning less than SGA per month. Learn more about: How to Apply for Disability While Working


Every person is different. Your reasons for not doing sedentary work will be unique to you and your illness. Here’s some examples from other people:

🌷 Some people are unable to do sedentary work because their medical records show that cannot sit up long enough to do this kind of work.

🌷 Some people have medical problems that make use of their hands difficult, so they cannot do any kind of tasks with their hands for an extended time.

🌷 Some people are unable to do sedentary work because their medical records show that they need to take too many breaks, they cannot sit in one place for an extended period, or they need to lie down throughout the day.

🌷 Some people are unable to do sedentary work because they have too many cognitive problems, with memory, focus or concentration. Many sedentary jobs require some level of focus or concentration.

🌷 Some people are unable to do sedentary work because their health creates so many absences and no employer would allow this many absences.


From the NOLO article on Being Denied Because You Can Do Sit-Down Work.


  • must elevate legs while seated
  • must recline or assume a lying down position during the day
  • cannot crouch, stoop, or bend
  • severely limited in use of the dominant hand
  • unable to sit for six to eight hours, or
  • must lie down and/or sleep during the day due to fatigue.


  • cannot follow short, simple instructions
  • cannot interact appropriately with supervisors and co-workers
  • cannot maintain attention and concentration for extended periods
  • unable to maintain basic standards of cleanliness and hygiene
  • cannot handle work stresses
  • will miss two or more days of work per month for medical reasons, or
  • will be off-task for more than 15% of a workday, excluding customary breaks.


🌷 Some people with Lyme, ME, MCS, CFS, or related conditions find it helpful to get neurocognitive testing to document problems with memory, focus and concentration.

🌷 Social Security won’t just take your word for it. They will also give a lot of consideration to what your doctor says. It is very very very helpful to have your doctors complete both mental and physical RFC forms to show what your limitations are: How to Work with Your Doctor to Get a Great RFC Function Form


Tulip was approved for both Long Term Disability and Social Security disability. Here’s some smart advice:

“In our letters, my doctor and I detailed my medical history and then included specific language stating that I was unable to work, even part-time sedentary work from home. We made sure we were clear on that point, and did not rely on Social Security to infer anything.” Tulip Gets a Great Doctor’s Letter


Here’s some great advice from SGB law office:

“You should 
answer this question by explaining why you cannot keep a job because of your disability. Some examples include:

  • Missing work because of symptoms, pain. fatigue or depression
  • Difficulty concentrating or thinking
  • Problems sitting, standing, lifting, walking or using your hands
  • Difficulty being around others.
  • Inability to finish tasks or work on a deadline.

“Tip: The slow economy, your age, and training are not explanations for why your illness and injuries limit your ability to work.”


Four readers answer this question about lyme disease, fibromyalgia, back injury and mental health: Why Can’t You Work?

Disability Secrets Article: Why You Can’t Work: What Not to Complain About at Your Disability Hearing

What Do You Think? 

Please comment below with stories, ideas, questions or suggestions. Please let us know if any links on this page stop working.

Updated May 2019. If you found this page helpful, please share it with others by pressing one of these magic little buttons:


4 thoughts on “How to Answer the Question: “Why Can’t You Work?””

  1. “…number of absences per month due to medical care…”

    I am not even functioning enough to work 40 hours per week, every week, on a set schedule…

    I highlighted this quote because this fact s so often overlooked…

    There are people who are “functioning” at a “level” that others may know that they are ill..

    But what they don’t see is what it takes to maintain that level…hours on the phone every week to the insurance co, to the pharmacy, to medical offices…yes, EVERY week…with no end, ever

    The insurance companies make it to get anything done you have to call 9-5-during the same hours most people are at work…and then they leave you on hold for over an hour, literally…EVERY TIME-longer than the average allowed “lunch break ” of thirty minutes…the same with other medically related places…

    I cannot have one medical appt. take up a while weekday between getting there, waiting while they are late, seeing the doc/specialist whoever, then going to the lab and to the pharmacy afterward…

    It literally sucks up more than 8 hours straight that “other” (not disabled) people are at work…

    And for NO money!

    And so this s yet another reason that people end up on disability…

    So there are people who could work if they had someone else to handle all this…but the system makes it that you have to be so sick and incapacitated that they will only provide you with someone to handle these matters if you are too sick to do it yourself, not if you could work with treatment and assistance, but you can’t work and handle your medical maintenance yourself,,,

    How does this benefit anyone?

    It does not, in my opinion,,,


      1. I imagine that’s an option but where do you find one who actually know how to get solve the issues that arise and who is going to pay them?


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