How Does Social Security Define “Disability”?
I often hear clients say, “I am disabled and can’t work, why doesn’t Social Security understand that?” I understand that it is frustrating when you to want to work, but to be unable to do so. Your physical or mental illness that you and your family are dealing with is keeping you from working. Then the SSA denies your claim. This is frustrating. Just exactly how does the SSA define disability?
How Does the SSA Define Disability
For an adult 18 years or older, the Social Security Administration will define disability as:
an inability to “engage in any substantial gainful activity because of a medically-determinable physical or mental impairment(s): that is expected to result in death, or that has lasted or is expected to last for a continuous period of at least twelve months.”
Let’s take a moment to break this definition down. The key here is “substantial gainful activity”. This can have several definitions, depending on which Social Security program you are applying for.
Work considered to be “substantial” by the Social Security Administration must involve doing significant physical or mental activities (or a combination of both).
Work considered to be “gainful,” must be:
- Performed for pay or profit, or
- Work of a nature generally performed for pay or profit, or
- Work intended to realize a profit, regardless of whether a profit is actually realized.
So working for your church for 15-20 hours a week as a volunteer may qualify as “substantial gainful activity”.
Annual Earnings Threshold
The Social Security Administration has earnings guidelines they use to determine your disability status. These guidelines help you determine how much you can earn after your disability. If you exceed the threshold, they will consider your work to be “substantial gainful activity”.
If your impairment is anything other than blindness, your earning threshold is an average of $1,130 gross per month. This threshold is calculated annually. Earning over the threshold will show an ability to engage in “substantial gainful activity”. Because of this, you can expect a denial.
Also, your ability to work full time is not dependent on the type of work that you did before your disability. If you cannot go back to your previous type of employment, the SSA will want to know if there is full time work that you can do. The SSA doesn’t care if you were a physical therapist making $120k/year and now all you can do is telephone customer service from your home, making $25k/year. If you can work full time and earn over the threshold, your claim will not get approval.
Boiled down, if you are unable to work due to your medically-determinable physical or mental impairments for a period of at least twelve months, you may be a candidate for Social Security benefits.