What Is a Disability According to the Social Security Administration?

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With all the commercials advertising legal assistance for getting Social Security Disability benefits today, many Americans wonder what the term “disability” means. The answer is more complicated than you think. The best way to grasp it is to examine the five questions considered by the Social Security Administration (SSA) when evaluating whether a given applicant has a qualifying disability.


Are You Working?

The first hurdle is a pragmatic one. Anybody who makes enough money per month to support themselves is not eligible for Social Security disability payments, even if they could make a legitimate disability claim.

The exact amount needed to reach this benchmark changes on an annual basis, and may vary by state. The best way to learn whether you qualify is to speak with an SSA representative in your area.


Is Your Medical Condition Severe?

This is the step where the SSA evaluates whether or not the medical condition at the root of your disability is severe enough to impact your ability to work. In most cases, anything affecting your ability to lift, stand, sit, or remember directions for at least 12 months is considered severe.

Unlike other assistance programs, disability benefits depend on the condition lasting 12 months, or until death, if the latter is expected to be a shorter duration. A shorter-term condition is not considered a qualifying disability, even if it otherwise would be.


Does Your Impairment Meet or Exceed Something on the SSA’s List of Impairments?

The SSA has a list of conditions regarded as severe enough to qualify for social security disability. If your condition is on the list, you may get approved, without the next two questions requiring consideration. If your condition is not on the list, the examiners consider whether your condition is just as severe as something that is. If not, they move on to the subsequent questions below.

Note that your doctors must undergo questioning regarding your medical condition at this stage. The severity, duration, and prognosis are all fair game for discussion. However, your doctors do not make the final determination on whether you qualify for disability. That decision is in the hands of your state’s Disability Determination Services (DDS) office.


Can You Do the Work You Used to Do?

Everyone has different skills, work experiences, and education levels. These variables go up for consideration when evaluating a candidate’s eligibility for Social Security disability benefits. If you can still perform the work you once did before you developed your medical condition, you won’t be eligible for disability payments.

You will need to include information about what you used to do, to allow your DDS office to answer this question. The Social Security Disability Insurance Program (SSDI) also uses your prior earnings to calculate your monthly payments, if you qualify to collect any. The Supplemental Security Income (SSI) program is calculated in a separate way from what you used to make. However, the two programs share an application process, and definition of the word “disability.”


Can You Do Any Other Type of Work?

The last question only comes into play if you develop a severe medical condition, and cannot do what you once did in the workforce. If you maintain an ability to sit, lift, stand, and/or remember directions, despite your medical condition, you may not have a qualifying disability, even if you can no longer do the same kind of work. The flexibility of skills or work experience you have will go up for consideration.

Remember that being approved for disability does not mean you will never be able to work again. The SSA offers several Work Incentives, ranging from vocational training services at no cost to you, to income forgiveness if you end up making more money than allowed under the terms of the program. The Ticket to Work program even provides a permanent exemption for the otherwise mandated medical reassessments that determine whether disability recipients still qualify for the program.

In conclusion, the SSA uses a lengthy process to determine what qualifies as a disability.