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What is the Social Security Administration’s definition of a disability?

On Behalf of | May 17, 2024 | Social Security Disability

When applying for Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) or Supplemental Security Income (SSI), it is important to understand the Social Security Administration’s (SSA’s) definition of a disability. 

SSA’s criteria related to this concept are specific and stringent, focusing on the severity and duration of the condition in question and its impact on an applicant’s ability to work. 

The basics of eligibility for SSDI and SSI

The Social Security Administration defines disability strictly in terms of its impact on work capacity. Essentially, the SSA assesses the following when an applicant requests benefits as a result of a medical condition that renders them unable to perform substantial work activity:

  • Severity of the condition: If a condition does not significantly interfere with work-related activities, it typically does not qualify as a disability per the SSA’s standards.
  • Non-ability to engage in substantial gainful activity (SGA): For 2024, the SSA considers any job that pays $1,470 or more per month as substantial gainful activity. Individuals capable of earning more than this amount are generally not considered disabled under SSA rules.
  • Duration of the Condition: The condition must either have lasted or be expected to last for at least one year or to result in death. Shorter durations, even if severe, do not qualify.

If you are thinking about applying for benefits, SSA will (essentially) ask you the following five questions when processing your request:

  1. Are you working? If you are earning relatively significant income, you will probably not qualify as disabled.
  2. Is your condition “severe”? Your condition must interfere significantly with basic work activities.
  3. Does your condition “meet or equal” one of SSA’s listed “disabling conditions?”  SSA maintains a list of conditions for each that automatically are considered severe enough to be disabling when certain conditions are met, but you can qualify for benefits for conditions that are not listed, as well – and with combinations of conditions that basically “equal” a listed condition.
  4. Can you do the work you did previously? If the SSA determines that your condition does not prevent you from doing the work you did previously, your claim will be denied.
  5. Can you do any other type of work? If you cannot do the work you did in the past, the SSA will then consider whether you can adjust to other work. Age, education, past work experience and transferable skills are all considered. 

SSA’s definition of disability will impact any request you make for benefits. Understanding this standard can make it easier to organize your supporting information and get your claim approved.