If you have vision loss, are legally blind or have serious eyesight problems, you may qualify for Social Security disability benefits. But before you apply, learn how the Social Security Administration (SSA) defines blindness and other vision issues that count as a qualifying disability.
Special Rules for Disability Applicants Who Are Legally Blind, Born With Blindness or Have Vision Loss
For those who are legally blind or have poor vision, the SSA has special rules. The SSA considers you legally blind if your:
- Vision cannot be corrected to better than 20/200 in your good eye, or
- Visual field is 20 degrees or less, even while wearing corrective lenses
This means that if your vision is still worse than 20/200 in both eyes (even with contacts or glasses), then you may qualify for SSD benefits. According to the SSA, some people defined as legally blind still can see some things and even read large-print text. You may also need help to get around using either a cane or guide dog. In addition, the SSA’s special rules make it easier to get approved for disability benefits with vision loss once you turn 55 years old.
In addition, you must meet all “technical” requirements to qualify for disability benefits, including:
- You must earn enough Social Security work credits in recent years through working and paying FICA taxes. Typically, this means you worked at least 5 in the last 10 years full time in jobs that withheld Social Security taxes from every paycheck. If you haven’t worked in more than five years, then you cannot qualify for SSD benefits.
- You must be 18-65 years old and living in the United States when you apply. That’s because once you reach full retirement age, disability benefits automatically convert into regular Social Security. If you already receive Social Security, then you cannot qualify for disability benefits.
- Your eyesight problems must last at least 12 months. In other words, if an injury causes temporary vision loss that gets better in less than one year, it doesn’t meet the SSA’s definition of “disability.”
What If You Have Eyesight Problems, But Aren’t Legally or Totally Blind?
If your eyesight problems don’t meet the SSA’s definition of blindness, you may still qualify for Social Security disability benefits. The thing to keep in mind is that you don’t have to list just one health problem on your disability application. Instead, about 62% of people approved for monthly SSD payments list several health issues on their claim forms. In addition, it’s important to know that your vision loss or blindness must last at least 12 months.
The SSA noted that there are special rules in place for blind people. That’s because this condition can severely impact a person’s ability to work. For this reason, the SSA’s monthly earnings limit is higher for blind applicants than it is for sighted workers. If you’re blind, legally blind or have significant vision loss, you may earn up to $2,190/month and still qualify for disability. However, disability applicants with zero vision loss issues must earn less than $1,310 per month to qualify.
What Causes Vision Loss?
For those not born blind, vision loss and legal blindness can result from a variety of conditions. Some leading health causes include:
- Facial injuries (such as chemical burns)
- Macular degeneration
These conditions may cause partial vision loss where things look blurred, cloudy, fuzzy or you have tunnel vision. If you have trouble seeing at night (especially while driving), that’s another form of vision loss. These conditions can also lead to total blindness in more severe cases, such as macular degeneration.
Other conditions that can lead to vision loss include:
- Optic neuritis, which happens to people with multiple sclerosis (MS)
- Ambylyopia (a childhood condition that some people refer to as “lazy eye”)
- Blocked blood vessels
- Retrolental fibroplasia (RLF), also commonly known as retinopathy of prematurity (ROP) or Terry syndrome
Medical Evidence Related to Your Vision Loss/Blindness That Helps Prove Your Case
If you have a serious visual impairment and apply for SSD benefits, you must submit complete medical evidence that supports your claim. Typically, the SSA wants to see the previous year’s medical records (12 months) related to your sight problems. Here are some exam results that will help support your case:
- Confrontational visual field test – this is where an ophthalmologist or optometrist measures the edge of your peripheral vision.
- Automated perimetry exam – this is a standard test for glaucoma patients, and helps your eye doctor detect patterns in your vision loss from eye disease.
- Frequency doubling perimetry (FTD) test – this test helps your eye doctor predict how your vision loss may advance over the next 5-6 years.
- Pattern ERG vision test – this is a highly advanced eye test that measures how well your retina reacts to light.
- Cycloplegic refraction test – ever had your eyes dilated for an exam with little drops? This is that test, and eye doctors use it to diagnose things like myopia and astigmatism.
- Visually evoked response (VER) test – this test helps diagnose vision loss progression in MS patients due to nerve damage.
The SSA will review your most recent eye exams for measurements of your visual acuity and the extent of your visual fields. The SSA may require documentation showing where your vision loss came from, such as an MS diagnosis or physical injury.
You May Qualify for Legal Assistance
Applying for SSD benefits is confusing, time-consuming and difficult. The SSA only approves 35% of applicants each year, and less than 1 in 5 get benefits without legal assistance. Having a lawyer file your claim paperwork nearly triples your benefit approval chances, and you’ll potentially get paid much faster. You can sign up for a free phone call from a Social Security attorney near you to discuss your claim. This phone call is your first step towards qualifying for disability benefits. If a lawyer can’t get your benefits claim approved, you pay $0 for legal assistance. And if your case wins, then you’ll only pay a small, one-time fee.
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Lori Polemenakos is Director of Consumer Content and SEO strategist for LeadingResponse, a legal marketing company. An award-winning journalist, writer and editor based in Dallas, Texas, she's produced articles for major brands such as Match.com, Yahoo!, MSN, AOL, Xfinity, Mail.com, and edited several published books. Since 2016, she's published hundreds of articles about Social Security disability, workers' compensation, veterans' benefits, personal injury, mass tort, auto accident claims, bankruptcy, employment law and other related legal issues.