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How Does Social Security Determine If Someone is Disabled?

What material is used as a factor during a benefit case?

The Social Security Administration first looks at your average monthly earnings to see if they are less that the substantial gainful activity (SGA) level. If they are above this level, the Administration usually cannot classify you as disabled. Then, if your monthly income is less that the SGA level, the Administration examines if your case is severe. At this step in the process it is helpful to have medical proof of the severity of your disorder. A disorder has to limit your basic everyday functions like walking and remembering to be classified as severe. If your case is determined as severe, the Administration looks to see if the disorder is in its Listing of Impairments manual. If the disorder is on the list, your claim is approved but if it is not they must determine that you cannot perform the work you previously engaged in or any other type of work before approving your case for disability benefits.

Overall, to determine if you are disabled Social Security decides if you are able to still complete your past work or, if not, any other work. Generally, Social Security will collect all of your medical records and determine if you are able to do your past work. If Social Security determines you cannot complete your old job duties, then Social Security will consider if you are capable of doing any work in view of your health problems, education, age, and work experience.

Though it might seem odd, the Social Security Act requires that age be considered in determining whether you are disabled. The act mandates a claimant’s age be considered because Congress thought older persons would have a more difficult time adapting to a new line of work.

Social Security relies on a voluminous body of regulations to determine if you can work.

What is Disability according to Social Security?


The dictionary defines disability as "a physical or mental handicap, especially one that prevents a person from living a full, normal life or from holding a gainful job." The Social Security Administration however, uses a more complex method to define disability. To determine if you are disabled, the SSA uses the following five step process:

  1. Are you currently working? -- If you are able to work and you earn more than $1000 per month, you may not be eligible for disability benefits.

  2. Is your condition "severe"? -- If your condition does not interfere with basic work activities then you may not be considered disabled.

  3. Is your condition found in the list of disabling conditions? -- If your condition is not on the list, SSA will decide if the condition is equal in severity to a listed condition. For a list of conditions, please see our Common Disabilities page.

  4. Can you do the work you did previously? -- If you are able to do the work you previously did in spite of your condition, you may not qualify for disability benefits.

  5. Can you do any other type of work? -- If you are able to adjust to another job you may not be considered disabled.

As you can see, the five step test used by the Social Security has many grey areas. Whether or not the SSA considers you disabled can sometimes be affected by how well you present your case. Therefore, many disabled individuals find that it's helpful to have a Social Security Disability advocate help them with their case. To find a disability advocate who can help you, please complete the Free Disability Case Review .

I won my disability benefits case, now what?

Congratulations! You have won your case. You will begin receiving a monthly benefit amount. What you receive depends on whether or not you applied for SSD or SSI. If you applied for SSDI your income is determined by your input in (i.e. your income and tax contributions). You might have received a report listing all of your income that lists all of your reported income since the first time you started working. Make sure this information is accurate. As far as the SSI benefit the federal government sets this amount and they will adjust annually depending on any inflation that may occur..