Social Security’s Definition of Disability

August 1, 2019 • By

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Last Updated: July 16, 2021

" "This month marks the 29th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, which was signed into law by President George H.W. Bush on July 26, 1990. Disability affects millions of Americans. It can inhibit peoples’ quality of life and their ability to earn a living. Social Security is here to help you and your family, but there are strict criteria for meeting the definition of disability. The definition of disability under Social Security is also different than it is for other programs. We do not pay benefits for partial or short-term disability.

Social Security has a strict definition of disability. Social Security program rules assume that working families have access to other resources to provide support during periods of short-term disabilities, including workers’ compensation, insurance, savings, and investments.

Social Security is also required by law to review the current medical condition of people receiving disability benefits to make sure they continue to have a qualifying disability. Generally, if someone’s health hasn’t improved, or if their disability still keeps them from working, they will continue to receive benefits.

Social Security is a support system for people who cannot work because of a disability. You can learn more about Social Security’s disability program on our website and also by accessing our starter kits and checklists.

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About the Author

Mike Korbey, Deputy Commissioner for Communications

Mike Korbey, Deputy Commissioner for Communications


  1. Mary C.

    I have a ton of disabilities which have prevented me from earning the hours needed to qualify for social security disability! My husband makes too much for me to receive SSI! He is 66 & retired, I am 58 and would like to know if there is any help available for me! Thank you!

    • john

      Nope, not as long as you’re married.

    • ST

      When your husband retires, you will qualify for spouse benefits, just as any other spouse.

  2. Ralph G.


    • Lori

      There is a list of eligible disabilities on the SSA.gov website. Remember, though, you must have medical documentation.

    • L.A.

      Hi Ralph. You may find our listing of impairments useful. Social Security pays only for total disability. No benefits are payable for partial disability or short-term disability. Disability benefits are paid to people who are unable to work because of a medical condition that is expected to last one year or more or to end in death. If you think you are disabled, you can apply for disability benefits. You will need to complete your application for Supplemental Security Information (SSI) disability benefits at your local Social Security office. We hope this helps!

  3. Mark j.

    I have adhd, and limitation on my right ankle from throne ligaments and tendons. I also injuries my back in the miltary

    • Chas

      See a disability attorney.

  4. Barb S.

    You said that Social Security was required BY LAW to review current medical condition to ensure that someone still has a qualifying disability.
    I work with people who are getting SSI payments and government benefits, and many of them (easily over half) are lying about their disabilities and receiving payments. They think this is “normal” behavior and that if they can fool the government it is something. To be proud of.
    My question would be: where are the checks and balances??

    • Lori

      If a person is receiving SSDI (social security disability insurance) you can make up to a certain amount monthly (I think it’s $800 a month total) and still receive your benefits. Remember though, there are two types of social security disability payments.

      SSDI (social security disability insurance) is the disability payment one receives when they have PAID into Social Security through being employed and become disabled before retirement age. Payment amount is based on your earnings.

      SSDA (social security disability assistance) is the disability payments one receives when they are born with or develop a disability and have NOT paid into Social Security through being employed or have earnings. It is a standard monthly payment across the board, which I think is $760.

      • john

        It’s not SSDA, it’s called SSI.

      • ST

        It would be better to ask Google than Lori, who is mistaken on a number of points. Google will direct you to the page on ssa.gov that has the answers.

    • L.A.

      Hi Barb. Thanks for your question. Social Security takes reports of fraud very seriously. If you suspect fraud, here you will find the instructions that you need to submit a fraud report. You can also try and reach a representative on the Fraud Hotline 1-800-269-0271 (TTY 1-866-501-2101) from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Eastern Standard Time. You can also report Social Security program fraud directly to any Social Security office. We hope this helps.

  5. Manuel V.

    So what was the Social Security Administration’s definition of “disability?”

    • L.A.

      Hi Manuel. The Social Security Law defines disability as being unable to work because of a physical or mental medical condition that is expected to last one year or more or end in death. You can read more about the disability benefits administered by the Social Security Administration here. We hope this helps.

  6. Julia m.

    Hi I am on SSI I as receiving a small sum of $ from a trust. In February of this year that has disappeared. I also would like to see if I could apply for SSDI. I suffer from depression and not able to work because of it. I belief I only could apply for SSI because of what I was getting from a small trust. I no longer have access this trust. Am I able to apply for SSDI?

    • Laurie B.

      In order to qualify for SSDI you must have enough work credits. If you haven’t been working over the past few years, you most likely won’t have enough and will continue to qualify for SSI only.
      You can go to their website to verify that info and to find out anything else you may need to know. They have a ton of information on the website.

      • Barbara

        You have your info completely backwards. So you are giving incorrect information

    • Barbara

      Please disregard this person’s info. It is completely incorrect. You must meet employment requirements for SSI, anyone that does not may qualify for SSDI due to low income.

      • WAM

        No, it is you who have it backwards. SSDI is for when you have enough work credits. SSI is for those who have not earned enough credits to qualify for SSDI.

  7. Lewis n.

    I’m 75 all my Dr’s say I’m disable but when I try with social security and or the Va I get no where I’m to old and I should have got disability before I got social security

    • Lori

      Because of your age any social security disability would convert to regular social security benefits. You cannot collect both.

      • Pat K.

        I have a question about this. If a person applied for early retirement because of a disability and did not know they could have applied for
        Disability instead, and that check would have been higher and stayed at that amount when it converts to retirement, why would they not be entitled to apply for the difference?

  8. Diane D.

    My adult daughter sustained a significant spinal cord injury while swimming in the ocean. As a result she has Quadraplegia and is dependent on others for all her cares.
    Despite this and with the help of a voice activated computer program she was able to complete college with a double major in math and science.
    Our state, Minnesota has a program which encourages people with disabilities to work. She works parttime, often from home using technology. As a result she does not take social security payments even though she remains “eligible”.

    Her employer also has covered her medical bills which are in the thousands each year.

    Recently she went in to the social security office to renew her paperwork which states she remains eligible. Without this eligibility she would not be able to continue receiving nursing and personal care assistants in the community.

    Unfortunately she had not monitored her employee retirement plan and ended up above the limit.

    She is devastated and wondering why she even has tried to work parttime.

    What can she do to remain eligible? If she doesn’t she will lose her ability to live and work in the community.

    Every day is a battle for her with her health, obtaining caregivers and the constant worries of needing to go into a group home or nursing home. She has managed to build a life as best she can but it all can come crumbling down.

    Are there any policy changes coming up that can help with those like My daughter who only need to remain eligible?

    • Sue

      I don’t know the answer in your case, but I would seek a disability lawyers advise. They work on commission usually and you can establish that on the phone when you call to speak to one to set an appointment up. If your daughter is working part time, the lawyer will work something out with you after the case is won. Look Disability Lawyers up in your area in the phone book or online. Good luck.

      • Jonathan R.

        Personally, I would go to NOSSCR (www.nosscr.org) ; call the number: 1- explain your situation/ and that of your friend/relative; By the way, you want a “NOSSCR-certified attorney”. NOSSCR stands for:
        “National Organization of Social Security Claimants’ Representatives.
        Go to: https://nosscr.org/referral-service/ ; AND: you will find the number; and 1 or 2 hyperlinks.
        Additionally, try:
        https://www.nolo.com/legal-encyclopedia/disability ; great links. click “find a lawyer” (toward the top); also, there are Live chat dialog boxes/who can recommend attorneys.

  9. Paul S.

    What is the Definition of disability per Social Security Administration.

  10. Karen T.

    is cervical dystonia a disability

    • ST

      Disability is determined not by diagnosis alone, but by the ways in which your symptoms prevent you from being able to work.

    • Natasha K.

      Hello! I have Generalized Dystonia and many other health conditions and I have received benefits for years. I would definitely make some contacts to get what you need and deserve.

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