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What is disability according to Social Security Disability law?

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Learn about disability as defined by the Social Security Administration and see how working while disabled fits into getting Social Security disability.


Watch the video: “What is disability according to Social Security Disability law? “

How Social Security Defines Disability

For adult claimants, including disabled adult children, the Social Security Administration, known as SSA, answers the question “What is disability?” with the following definition: “[Disability is] the inability to engage in 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 twelve months.”

Work and Social Security Disability

As you see, the definition is made up of several requirements, but before we go into detail about what each part of the definition means, we’d like to point out that it is often difficult to tell whether or not work that you performed after the date you claim disability will prevent you from being approved. Sometimes the only way to know for sure is to file a claim; however, you may also find it helpful to talk with a lawyer who is experienced in Social Security Disability claims.

More about SSA’s Definition of Disability

Now for a closer look at Social Security’s definition of disability. The definition contains several special terms that have legal definitions. For example, substantial gainful activity, abbreviated as SGA, is work activity that the Social Security Administration determines is “substantial” and “gainful.”

“Gainful” work is work performed for pay or profit, or a type of work that is generally performed for compensation, or work that is intended to result in a profit, whether or not you have a profit. This means that “gainful” is not always defined just by the amount you earn. Substantial gainful activity is determined differently for employees, for self-employed individuals, and for the blind.

For employees, there is a dollar amount that serves as a general guideline for substantial work. The amount has increased over the years, due to inflation. In 2014, monthly gross earnings of $1,070.00 or more are generally defined as substantial for non-blind workers. The SGA guideline for blind workers is usually $1,800.00. However, for the self-employed and sometimes even for employees, additional factors can apply when the Social Security Administration assesses whether a person is performing SGA.

The SGA assessment for self-employed workers is even more complex than for employees. For example, the work of blind, self-employed workers is evaluated considering “countable” earnings; however, under Social Security rules, some types of income earned by a blind person are not counted when assessing whether the work is substantial.

This discussion of Social Security’s definition of disability provides an overview answer to the question “What is disability?” For a discussion of how this definition is applied to your Social Security Disability claim, visit our article “How Does the Social Security Administration Apply Social Security Disability Laws to Determine If I Am Disabled?”

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  1. deborah ewig says:

    had surgery on sept. 9 2013 for 6.5 brain anerysym. am waiting for short term disibility to start. go back to neurology dr in 4 months & epelepsy clinic in 6 months while making sure medications are going be right. had continuous seizures after surgery. stayed in icu for week then went to rehab hosp for a week. can i apply for social security disibilty benefits while i am out of work all this time.

    • Kay Derochie says:

      Dear Deborah,

      Your must be disabled, or be expected to be disabled for twelve months to qualify for benefits; and the first five months are not paid. If you are expected to be off work for twelve months, then it would be appropriate to file an application. A chat with your neurologist should help in deciding whether to apply at this time.

      Best regards,


  2. kathy Stokes says:

    I’ve had a lawyer for 4 yrs now just today after all the appealing and waiting for a yr from dds they denied me and in the letter they said they used medical records from back in May but where askin for current records they haven’t even used now wat do i do

    • Kay Derochie says:

      Dear Kathy,

      I am unclear from the information that you gave whether you were denied at the first reconsideration appeal or denied by a judge at the hearing level of appeal. Either way you can appeal. When you appeal, you and your attorney need to address the specific reasons for the denial and why you disagree with those reasons. In addition to following whatever advice your attorney has, it seems you would want to call attenti to the fact that your more current records were requested but not considered.



  3. Ramona S says:

    I am a bus driver I had rotator cuff repair on right shoulder 9/2010 now I had left rototor cuff repair 10/2013 I went out on short term diabilty from the job which turn out to be 90 days my insurance and short term disability from my job ended no more theraphy. I was getting theraphy for neuropathy for my feet n angles has pins and needle sesations I have to get shots n my knees n lower back all this is from driving that bus for 18 years my arm cant raise up now iam trying to theraphy myself its January now the doctor still have me down cant drive the bus shouldn’t I have a chance to apply for disability im 57

    • Kay Derochie says:

      Dear Ramona,

      To be eligibible for Social Security Disability, you must be disabled or expected to be disabled for twelve months. I suggest that you talk with the doctors who were treating you to get their opinion of whether you will be disabled twelve months. If they say yes or that they don’t know or can’t be specific on when you might be able to drive bus again, I suggest that you file for Social Security Disability. Be sure to explain that your treatment stopped for lack of funds. (You might also investigate coverage opinions and premium subsidies under the Affordable Care Act [Obamacare] to get treatment going again.



  4. rebekah says:

    I’m 24 years old. I have been on SSI for 6 years for Bipolar, Agoraphobia, PTSD, ADHD. I was recently reviewed and was still determined disabled and will be reviewed again in 3 years. I get $730.00 a month. How does Social Security expect a person to survive on that alone, and with a child? I’m not married. I live in an apartment with our daughter and my boyfriend. Both of our names are on the lease. I don’t get any assistance otherwise besides food stamps only for myself. My daughter isn’t eligible because her father makes too much. We are struggling really bad. And honestly if I wasn’t with my boyfriend how would i make it? It’s like they expect someone else to take care of you forever! I don’t have the luxury of any family to allow me to live with them or friends. It’s just me. I tell my ssi case worker how my whole check goes right to my rent every month and that isn’t even paying my rent. My rent is 925.00 + sewage + electricity+cable+phone. I’m not even making it, and that is with my boyfriend. It is a set up for failure honestly! I’m someone who is severely mentally ill, and can’t work, my doctors agree, ss obviously agrees, and I’m lost. My illnesses aren’t ever going to go away, their getting worst. Weight is just dropping off of me not being able to afford any food.

    • Kay Derochie says:

      Dear Rebekah,

      The only think I can think of that might help your situation would be for you and your boyfriend to evenly divide the rent and utilities so that your share was less than your whole check and possibly see whether you qualify for energy assistance to help with your heating bill. Also, sometimes disabled individuals can get a break on their telephone rates.

      Best regards,


  5. Alfred says:

    I was born legally blind, and have worked (for the same company) since I got out of college in 1988. A few years ago, I knew the time would come that I would apply for social security disability.

    Two weeks ago, I was laid off from my job (my official termination / separation date is tomorrow, 4/1). After some thought, I decided to apply for SSDI, and I am going on Thursday.

    My eyesight is 20/200 in one eye, and 20/400 in the other. I never went much to a doctor, as my eyesight never really changed, but I have gone for the last three years, so I do have those medical records. I also have a letter from both the state commission for the blind and Helen Keller Services for the blind as well, recognizing me as a (legally) blind person. I will bring all this documentation with me when I apply.

    A couple of questions:

    1. The benefit I would receive, that would be the around the disability benefit that is on my Social Security annual statement – correct (it says “this is what you would receive if you became disabled right now)?

    2. Would they ask me something like “you worked all these years, why are you suddenly applying?” I just want to know what to expect.

    3. I am receiving severance pay through August, would that hurt my chances of applying/getting approved right now?



    • Kay Derochie says:

      Dear Alfred,

      Yes, your benefit, if approved, would be approximately what is shown on your annual earnings statement. You may be asked why you are now stopping work, but regardless of the reason, if you are legally blind and not working, there should be no impediment to approval because of the severity of your condition. Just tell them the reasons. (Lay off, downsizing, declining job performance, whatever it might be.) Lastly, be sure to tell Social Security that the pay that you will get for April through August is severance pay and that you will not be working.



  6. Alfred says:

    Thanks Kate.

    I went yesterday to apply, the woman interviewing me asked a lot of questions, but I think it went well. She even asked about my savings, checking, stocks, etc. I don’t remember now if she asked me about 401k (which I do have), or my work pension, but that doesn’t kick in until 59 anyway(( turn 50 next month). They will see that anyway when they look at my records.

    She said that may send me a questionnaire for further information, or even send me to one of their doctors (which is understandable). I have faith that all will go well, but waiting three months or so to get a decision will drive me crazy.


    • Kay Derochie says:

      Dear Alfred,

      If you are medically approved for disability, your 401K will not affect your Social Security application; however, it will be a determining factor in your eligibility for Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits. If you are found to be disabled, you have the right to withdraw from your 401k before age 59 1/2 without a tax penalty, and the amount in your 401K will count toward the $2,000 SSI resource limit. This means that if you have more than $2,000 in your 401K or your 401K and other countable assets exceed $2,000, you will not be eligible for SSI. Again, the 401K will not affect your eligibility for Social Security.



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