A rare neurological problem, ataxia is a progressive, degenerative condition of the nervous system that impacts a person’s ability to talk, walk, and use fine motor skills. Patients who suffer from ataxia often appear intoxicated, with symptoms of stumbling and/or falling; slurred speech; and signs of being uncoordinated. This happens because the cerebellum—the part of the brain that coordinates movement—begins to degenerate. People of all ages can develop ataxia. 


If you suffer from a certain type of ataxia, you may be eligible for disability benefits from the Social Security Administration (SSA). The SSA identifies Friedreich’s ataxia and spinocerebellar ataxia in section 11.17 of its Listing of Impairments, and three types are listed for the Compassionate Allowance Program that expedites serious illnesses. However, it’s still helpful to hire an experienced Social Security (SS) disability attorney to help you file your claim.

Ataxias That Qualify for Disability Benefits

Used as an “umbrella” term to classify a group of diseases, ataxia includes a number of different conditions, including:

  • Friedreich’s ataxia. The most common type of hereditary ataxia, Friedreich’s ataxia affects approximately 1 in every 50,000 people, and symptoms often develop before the age of 25. Some of these symptoms include difficulty swallowing; progressive weakness in the legs; abnormal curvature of the spine; partial or total hearing and vision loss; diabetes; and loss of feeling in the feet and hands. Patients with this type of ataxia often have a shorter life expectancy than normal.
  • Spinocerebellar ataxias. This is a group of hereditary ataxias that often develop during adulthood, from between the ages of 25 to 80, although some rare types can start during childhood. Some symptoms are similar to Friedreich’s ataxia, including difficulty swallowing, slurred speech, and peripheral neuropathy—loss of feeling in the feet and hands. However, other symptoms include muscle stiffness and cramps, incontinence, and slower eye movement, requiring the patient to move his or her head to compensation for the change in vision.
  • Ataxia telangiectasia (AT). AT is considered a rarer type of hereditary ataxia that impacts about 1 in every 100,000 children. Although symptoms often develop in early childhood, they can develop later. While patients who suffer from AT have a life expectancy of between the ages of 19 and 25, some people live into their 50s. Aside from some symptoms similar to Friedreich’s ataxia and spinocerebellar ataxias, symptoms of AT include red blood vessel “spider-like” clusters on the cheeks and in the corners of the eyes; a weaker immune system that makes patients especially susceptible to infections; and an increased risk of cancer. Approximately 40 percent of patients suffering from AT develop cancer.

Obtaining SS Disability for Ataxia

Friedreich’s ataxia and spinocerebellar ataxias (also known as spinocerebellar degeneration) are listed in section 11.17 of the Social Security (SS) Blue Book of Impairments. And these, along with AT, are listed for the Compassionate Allowance Program. In order to be eligible for disability benefits for Friedreich’s ataxia and spinocerebellar degeneration, you need to prove either part A or B of the listing:

A. Disorganization of a patient’s motor function in two extremities that results in significant limitation in his ability to use the upper extremities, stand from a seated position, or balance while walking or standing.


B. Marked limitation in physical functioning and in one of the following:

  1. Understanding, remembering, or applying information
  2. Interacting with others
  3. Concentrating, persisting, or maintaining pace
  4. Adapting or self-management

Compassionate Allowance Program

These three types of ataxia are also included in the Compassionate Allowance Program. This program allows for expedited processing for very serious illnesses and doesn’t have specific or special eligibility requirements. Instead, the SSA understands the condition involves such extreme impairments that the patient’s claim likely matches one of the disability listings.

It’s important to note that you don’t have to apply for a Compassionate Allowance. The SSA makes a determination for quick processing based on the evidence provided by the claimant. If the claim meets the SSA’s requirements, it’s put on a fast track for processing. However, it’s helpful to write “Compassionate Allowance Claim” at the top of your application.

We Can Help

If you’ve been diagnosed with some type of ataxia, you may qualify for SS disability benefits. Hiring an experienced SS attorney can help determine if you meet the Blue Book Listing for this condition or qualify for the Compassionate Allowance Program. Contact the attorneys at Cuddigan Law, who can help you understand the process and work with you on your application to increase the chances of getting an approved claim. Call (402) 933-5405 for a free evaluation of your case.



Sean D. Cuddigan
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SSA and VA Disability Attorney in Omaha, Nebraska