What is the Social Security definition of disability?

Social Security Disability (and SSI for that matter also) is a total disability program, not a short term or temporary disability program. This sets social security apart from veterans benefits which are often awarded on the basis of percentages. Social Security Disability and SSI benefits are given when the condition is 100 percent disabling, and not any less, according to the definition of disability used by SSA (social security administration).

SSD and SSI are also not awarded on the basis of a condition that is temporarily disabling. In fact, the medical records must clearly show that you will be disabled for a minimum of one year and future evaluations will be done periodically after you are approved to determine if your condition or conditions still satisfy the program requirements.

To qualify for disability benefits under either program will mean that your physical or mental condition, or combination of various conditions, satisfies the definition of disability used by the social security administration. What is the definition of disability and how does a case satisfy it?

The definition of disability states that an individual must have a severe impairment that has either lasted, or can be expected to last, for a minimum of one year.

The condition must be severe enough that it prevents the individual from engaging in what is referred to as SGA.

Substantial and gainful activity, or SGA, happens when a person is working and earning a certain level of income that the social security administration considers to be clear evidence of non-disability.

In other words, if you can work and earn the SGA earnings amount, or limit, then you are not disabled. If your condition prevents you from working and earning this amount or more, then you may be considered disabled (to see the current SGA limit: The most you can earn while receiving disability benefits).

Obviously, the SSA definition of disability does not bar work activity, which is a common mistaken assumption. A claimant can work while filing for disability, or even work while receiving disability benefits. The issue is how much the person can work, which is measured by how much they are able to earn.

Granted, this system is not perfect at measuring who is disabled and who is not since an individual who is receiving disability benefits can simply watch their earnings to make sure that they do not go over the monthly gross earned income limit.

However, thus far, this is the best method that the social security administration has come up with. It also, of course, ensures a certain amount of fairness since it allows disability beneficiaries to still work and receive a small amount of earned income without necessarily disqualifying them from receiving disability benefits. Even individuals with high earnings records still do not receive exorbitant disability benefit checks and, for this reason, many beneficiaries attempt to supplement their benefit checks with part-time work.

How do you prove disability? Or, rather, what must a disability examiner or an administrative law judge see in the evidence of the case--which includes both medical records and information concerning the claimant's vocational work history--in order to approve a person for benefits? (note: examiners make decisions on disability claims which are pending at the disability application or reconsideration appeal levels, and administrative law judges make decisions on claims that are at the hearing levels).

Disability cases that are not approved on the basis of meeting a listing (meaning that you have a physical or mental condition that is contained in the Social Security Disability list of impairments and meet all the necessary listing requirements) will be evaluated under a five step process that takes into consideration what the claimant's functional limitations are and their relative ability to engage in work activity.

About the Author: Tim Moore is a former Social Security Disability Examiner in North Carolina, has been interviewed by the NY Times and the LA Times on the disability system, and is an Accredited Disability Representative (ADR) in North Carolina. For assistance on a disability application or Appeal in NC, click here.

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