How does social security define disability?

There are two ways to define disability in terms of how the social security administration views it. The first is to cite the definition used by SSA.

According to SSA, a condition, or set of conditions, meets the federal government's standard of disability if it does the following:

1. Persists for one year or longer - This length is an absolute requirement. A condition, to be disabling, must last this long at the very least. Having said that, however, a claimant is not required to have had a particular condition, or set of conditions for an entire year before they are allowed to file for disability, or before they can be approved for disability. This is because disability examiners at the initial disability application and reconsideration appeal stages, and disability judges at hearings, can review the claimant's medical records and ascertain whether or not a condition can be predicted to be disabling for a year or longer.

2. Prevents the claimant from working and earning a substantial and gainful income during the previously mentioned minimum one-year period -- Keep in mind that the definition of disability does not state that a claimant cannot work while filing for disability. It simply states that a person must be incapable of working at a certain level to be considered "disabled". That level is defined as a certain earnings amount per month. That earnings amount per month is called SGA, or substantial gainful activity. Essentially, to qualify for disability benefits from the social security administration, a claimant cannot earn more than the SGA amount that is in effect for a given year.

3. May result in death -- Many claimants might be surprised to read this, but the SSA definition of disability holds that a condition may need to be this severe to result in the awarding of disability benefits. However, this aspect of the definition of disability only comes into play in cases where it is not apparent that the claimant's condition rules out the ability to work and earn a substantial and gainful income. In all likelihood, cases that show an obvious risk of death will be those that involve quick disability determinations or compassionate allowances based on terminal illness criteria.

A second way to look at how SSA chooses to define disability is to simply add more detail to the disability definition. And this entails a greater discussion of certain concepts that are key to the Social Security Disability and SSI determination process, such as: Past work, Other work.

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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