What is Social Security's Definition of Disability for SSD Benefits?

What is Social Security’s Definition of Disability?

Did you ever wonder if your ailment, illness, or injury would meet Social Security’s definition of disability? What does it take, exactly, to qualify for Social Security disability benefits? If someone uses a wheelchair or is otherwise differently abled, can they automatically collect SSD payments?

It might seem like an easy, obvious answer. But in reality, understanding what qualifies as “disabled” when you apply for Social Security disability benefits is anything but easy.

Part of the confusion happens because the Social Security Administration (SSA) uses different language than the rest of us. Since the SSA is the agency that determines what disability is and who gets benefits, we’ll explain what they look for below.

What Does the Word “Disability” Mean?

A commonly-used dictionary defines disability as “a physical, mental, cognitive, or developmental condition that impairs, interferes with, or limits a person’s ability to engage in certain tasks or actions or participate in typical daily activities and interactions.”

Given this definition, let’s look at one example. If I’m a secretary who must attend a weekly staff meeting and take notes, what happens if I break my hand? If I can’t do my job duties as required, then that makes me “disabled,” right?

Among friends or coworkers, maybe — if they’re using the Merriam-Webster definition we all know. But Social Security’s definition of disability that determines if someone will get SSD benefits is actually quite different.

What Is Social Security’s Definition of Disability for Evaluating SSD Benefit Claims?

Unfortunately, Social Security’s definition of disability isn’t the same as what we see in most dictionaries. To meet Social Security’s definition of disability and get SSD benefits, all 5 things below must be true:

1. You are totally unable to work.

2. You’ve got one or more severe health problems that will last at least 12 months, or likely result in your death.

3. Your illness, injury, or symptoms directly make you unable to work in any job that would hire you.

4. You earned enough Social Security work credits to qualify, and worked full-time within the last 5 years.

5. You’re not receiving any other Social Security benefits when you apply. This can mean early retirement, regular Social Security, spousal, or survivor’s benefits.

Let’s dig into that a little more.

Understanding the SSA’s Rules for Reviewing SSD Claims

Social Security’s definition of disability is listed in SSA policy books, so let’s look at what it says. It reads: “The inability to do any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which can be expected to result in death or which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months.”

In addition, the SSA’s rule book states that a person must have a severe impairment (or more than one severe impairment) that “makes you unable to do your past relevant work or any other substantial gainful work that exists in the national economy.”

What does this mean? Let’s look back at our example of a secretary whose job is to attend meetings and record minutes. According to the SSA, that means this secretary’s broken arm prevents her from going to meetings and taking minutes. In other words, it keeps her from doing her current job. It also means that to qualify for SSD benefits, her broken arm must prevent her from doing other jobs at the same company. In this case, she’s able to work at the reception desk greeting visitors and answering the phone. For this reason, the SSA is not going to award her SSD benefits. If the employer can assign work she can do with a broken arm, then the SSA will deny the secretary’s SSD claim.

In other words, an impairment that prevents you from doing your current job doesn’t automatically qualify you for SSD payments. If your supervisor can assign other work duties you can complete even with your current health problems, you’re not disabled. At least, you don’t meet Social Security’s definition of disabled based on their policy rules.

What If I’m Assigned Work I Don’t Want? Can I Get SSD Benefits Then?

No, you can’t. Why? Because Social Security’s definition of disability does not say you must enjoy your work in order to complete it.

Of course, everyone hopes an employer would find ways to help you keep your job during times of illness or injury. But doing job duties you don’t like until your illness or injury improves will not help you get SSD benefits.

Can I Automatically Meet Social Security’s Definition of Disability if I Have a Handicapped Parking Placard/Sticker?

The short answer is: No, having access to handicapped parking does not automatically qualify you as disabled. It’s true that some people use words like “handicapped” and “disabled” interchangeably in everyday life. However, a placard or sticker on your car does not mean you automatically meet Social Security’s definition of disability.

My Doctor Says I’m Disabled. Isn’t That Enough to Meet Social Security’s Definition of Disability and Get Benefits?

Unfortunately, no. Your doctor’s opinion isn’t the only thing that the SSA depends on when reviewing your SSD claim. To meet Social Security’s definition of disability, you must prove you cannot work at all for 12 months. In most cases, the SSA will send you to an independent medical exam. Your doctor usually won’t do this exam. Instead, you’ll see a Social Security doctor located in your state. You’ll also need to submit medical records from the past 12 months that show you’re under a doctor’s care.

Remember, the main thing the SSA looks for is proof your health issues make working 40 hours per week impossible. Plenty of people with what some think of as disabilities have regular, full-time jobs. And many others have invisible health problems that making working difficult or impossible. You cannot correctly judge anyone’s ability to work just by looking at them. Having such strict SSA rules in place also makes disability fraud much harder for criminals.

Can An Attorney Help Me?

An attorney can help you understand the nuances of Social Security’s definition of disability. Even better, a Social Security lawyer can triple your chances for benefit approval within 6 months. This is especially helpful if you don’t already have a condition that automatically qualifies you for disability payments. All disability lawyers charge $0 for legal help unless they help you win. If you get back pay and monthly benefits, you owe your lawyer just one small fee. Most people who qualify for legal help through this site get at least $13,000 plus monthly SSD benefits.

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Lisa Allen is a writer and editor who lives in suburban Kansas City. She holds MFAs in Creative Nonfiction and Poetry, both from the Solstice Low-Residency Program in Creative Writing at Pine Manor College. Prior to becoming a writer, Lisa worked as a paralegal, where she specialized in real estate in and around Chicago.