• David Manes

Social Security’s definition of disability

The Social Security Administration (SSA) awards benefits to people who cannot work due to physical and mental problems. However, these problems must meet a strict definition of the word disability. The SSA wants to be sure that you are unable to work before they grant you benefits. To qualify as disabled the SSA must find that:

  1. You have a severe physical or mental impairment

  2. The impairment results in marked limitations

  3. These limitations prevent you from doing any substantial gainful work; and,

  4. The disability is expected to last or has lasted at least twelve months, or is expected to result in death

Therefore, just because you may have been made to retire from your work by an employer because of a disability or are receiving benefits from a long-term insurance carrier, you are not automatically qualified to receive SSA benefits. You still must meet the definition under the SSA guidelines.

The difficulty with the SSA definition of disability

Imagine  you were injured and you went to see your doctor. The doctor told you that you were disabled and that you could never work as a plumber again. You applied for worker’s compensation benefits and after a hearing it was found that you were no longer able to perform as a plumber because of your injury. You may think that it would now be easy to convince the SSA that you are disabled and should receive SSA benefits. You would be wrong.

First off, the SSA definition of disability is usually very different from whatever your doctor may tell you. Doctors are not trained to think about disability in terms of SSA benefits, nor should they be. Also, the SSA will require that you prove that you cannot do any other job. So even though you can no longer work as a plumber, if you were able to get a desk job and perform that work you would not be considered disabled by the SSA.

How to prove to the SSA that you are disabled

With SSA’s strict definition of disability it can be difficult to prove that you are disabled. That is why 75% of initial applicants are denied. However, it is not impossible and it may take a little bit of time and tenacity. It can take up to two years to get your SSA disability claim heard and approved. Proving that you are disabled to the SSA requires that you:

  1. Analyze the definition of Social Security Disability and apply that definition to your disability

  2. Understand how the SSA application and appeal processes work;

  3. Learn how to develop your medical evidence

  4. Prove that you cannot work at your previous job nor any other job

  5. Learn how to present your case before an administrative law judge; and most importantly:

  6. Remain calm and do not give up[1]



[1] Berkley, Benjamin H., Win Your Social Security Disability Case, (Sphinx Legal, 2008)

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