What is a Residual Functional Capacity (RFC)?

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The Social Security Administration requires individuals applying for disability benefits to meet various eligibility criteria. One of the ways in which the Social Security Administration evaluates a disability claim is through the residual functional capacity, known as RFC.

The Residual functional capacity evaluation looks at your impairment(s), and any related indications, such as pain. Anything that may cause physical and mental restrictions that influence what you'll do in a work setting. Your residual functional capacity is the maximum you'll still do in spite of your restrictions.

In layman's terms, residual functional capacity defines your capability to engage in functional activities or tasks that you can still accomplish despite a physical or mental work limitation. More specifically, the residual functional capacity measures your ability to engage in gainful employment or work even taking into consideration any medical condition. For example, some of the things that the Social Security Administration may look at in regard to residual functional capacity include but are not limited to:

  • Can you speak, hear, and see?
  • Are you able to concentrate and focus on your work?
  • Are you capable of understanding, remembering, and carrying out tasks as they have been directed to you?
  • Are you able to cope with changes to your job or a workplace setting or environment?
  • How long can you perform physical activities such as standing, walking, sitting, pushing or pulling?
  • Are you able to use your fingers, balance, kneel down, or reach for or handle large objects, as determined by your job function in a workplace environment?

For example, you may have a herniated disc and have a limitation on the amount of poundage you can carry or lift. On the other hand, you may have been placed on medications that make it difficult for you to focus or concentrate on your computer or paperwork. If you've had a lower back injury or hip injury, you may find it difficult, if not impossible, to sit for long periods.

The residual functional capacity is also used for individuals who may have been diagnosed with brain injury, limited mental functioning, or intermittent brain seizure activity. For example, factors such as whether a person can follow directions, maintain levels of concentration, or get along with others all play a role in determining your residual functional capacity.

What is Residual Functional Capacity?

Your residual functional capacity (RFC) is an assessment made of your maximum capacity to perform a series of physical and (in some cases) mental tasks despite your disabling medical condition. It is usually something which is completed by your own physician on request, but in some cases, where the SSA examiners decide they need more evidence of your inability to continue in employment, may be requested by them. In this case you may be required to complete a RFC assessment made by an examining doctor appointed by the SSA’s own Disability Determination Services.

The physical tasks used in an RFC assessment depend on the medical condition with which you have applied for a disability benefit. It may include measuring how long you can stand up, how much weight you can pick up or carry, whether you can push or pull objects, kneel and use your fingers to grasp objects. The actual physical parameters assessed will depend on the nature of your normal job and will test whether your disability is severe enough to prevent you from continuing in that job or equivalent jobs you are capable of doing.

Mental tasks may include assessing how good your vision and hearing is, whether you can talk, remember and understand instructions. Your ability to be able to learn new skills which you could use to do a job despite your disability may also be assessed.

Part of eligibility for a disability benefit being approved depends on proving that you are unable to continue gainful employment for at least the next 12 months because of your disability. An RFC assessment can help to support an application for a disability benefit when your symptoms do not sufficiently match the criteria in a Blue Book listing.

Residual Functionality Examples

A person’s residual functional capacity (i.e., residual functionality) regards the maximum amount of work they are capable of doing given the physical and/or mental limitations they are experiencing.

To determine RFC, the Social Security Administration (SSA) will review an individual’s medical records. These medical records include both those records that are provided by the individual’s own doctor as well as reports from medical examinations performed by independent doctors.

Residual functionality examples include both one’s physical and mental limitations.

When an applicant applies for disability benefits, physical residual functionality is assessed either by the applicant’s doctor or by one appointed by the SSA.

Examples of physical residual functionality include whether the applicant is able to lift or carry items over a certain weight, whether they can stand or walk for an extended period(s) of time, whether they experience discomfort or pain when staying in the same position or sitting while working, and whether they can crawl, kneel, reach for objects, or bend over.

Below are some examples of residual functionality pertaining to mental ability that are used by the SSA for assessment purposes:

  • ability to carry out instructions while interacting or working with others;
  • ability to understand and remember instructions;
  • ability to accurately follow directions;
  • ability to respond appropriately to customers, coworkers, or managers.
  • ability to maintain a steady and consistent pace of work.

Other residual functionality examples that may be considered by the SSA could include hearing or vision impairments (which may affect a person’s ability to work) and the presence of seizures or epilepsy (which may also affect work effectiveness).

How Do You Answer a Residual Functional Capacity Form?

How to answer the questions on a residual functional form is not your responsibility. You just have to turn up to the appointment and a doctor will do the rest. A doctor is expected to comment on your physical limitations as this helps the Social Security Administration (SSA) decide if you are capable of working. A doctor will fill out the form after conducting a physical and mental examination and studying your medical records.

The doctor will answer honestly about your physical limitations at work. Sometimes the SSA gets one of their officers from the DDS to complete the form but you can also ask your own doctor to fill in the form as he or she will have a better understanding of how your disability affects you and will be able to explain your limitations and your residual functional capacity to the SSA.

However, you will need to download the form and take it with you to your doctor’s appointment. When a doctor has completed it and signed it you should include it with your Social Security disability benefits application along with any other paperwork requested by the SSA which you file with the SSA.

The mental limitations a doctor will need to assess include the following:

  • how well you can understand, remember facts and carry out instructions;
  • how you can stick to a routine without the need to be supervised;
  • how well you perform tasks to a schedule;
  • how well you can make basic decisions and judgments;
  • how well you can maintain attention and concentrate on tasks;
  • how well you are able to cooperate with coworkers or peers and still do your job.

A doctor will test your physical limitations based on the following:

  • how long you can stand in one place,
  • the weight of a load that you can carry;
  • how much pushing and pulling you can do.

How does the RFC Determine Disability?

There are many conditions that qualify for disability benefits. The residual functional capacity as defined by the Social Security Administration will determine whether you can meet requirements for sedentary, light, medium or heavy workloads or environments. Your scoring on the residual functional capacity form must show that you're unable to perform work as you have done in the past based on your current and expected duration of your disability.

The residual functional capacity form/questionnaire is most typically completed by a physician with the disability determination services, your own physician, or following a consultative exam with a doctor who works in some capacity for the Social Security Administration.

According to code 416.945, your Residual Functional Capacity under the Code of Federal Regulations, the Social Security Administration states, "When we assess your residual functional capacity, we will consider your ability to meet the physical, mental, sensory, and other requirements of work, as described in paragraphs (b), (c), and (d), of this section."

For more information regarding this code, access the SocialSecurity.gov website, or contact a Social Security lawyer who knows the system well. Click here for a free evaluation of your claim from an attorney who serves your area.

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