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"Disability" Defined

Definition of Disability – Adult


Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) and Supplemental Security Income (SSI) are two federal programs that provide financial assistance to individuals who are unable to work due to a disability. However, in order to qualify for benefits, you must meet the Social Security Administration's (SSA) definition of disability.


The SSA defines disability as the inability to engage in substantial gainful activity (SGA) due to a medically determinable physical or mental impairment that is expected to last for at least 12 months or result in death. In other words, you must have a severe impairment that prevents you from working and is expected to last for a significant period of time.


To determine if you meet the definition of disability, the SSA uses a five-step sequential evaluation process. The first two steps involve determining whether you are engaging in SGA and whether your impairment is severe enough to significantly limit your ability to work. If you pass these steps, the SSA will then evaluate whether your impairment meets or equals a Listing of Impairments.


The Listing of Impairments is a list of medical conditions that are considered severe enough to automatically qualify you for disability benefits. The list includes specific criteria for each condition, and if your impairment meets or equals the criteria for a listing, you will be found disabled. However, if your impairment does not meet or equal a listing, the SSA will move on to the next step of the evaluation process.


The final two steps of the evaluation process involve assessing your ability to perform past work and whether there is any other work you can do given your residual functional capacity (RFC), which is the most you can do despite your impairments. The SSA will consider your age, education, work experience, and other factors when determining whether you are able to work.


If you are unable to perform substantial gainful activity and meet the SSA's definition of disability, you may be eligible for SSDI or SSI benefits. However, it's important to note that the medical vocational guidelines, also known as the "grid rules," may also be considered in determining your eligibility for benefits. These guidelines take into account your RFC, age, education, and work experience to determine if there are any jobs you can perform despite your limitations.  These additional rules that can help you if you are over ages 50, 55, and 60.


Definition of Disability - Children


SSI is a federal program that provides financial assistance to low-income individuals with disabilities, including children. However, in order for your child to qualify for SSI benefits, they must meet certain eligibility requirements.

One of the ways the Social Security Administration (SSA) determines a child's eligibility for SSI benefits is by evaluating their functional limitations in six domains, or areas, of functioning. These domains include:

  1. Acquiring and using information

  2. Attending and completing tasks

  3. Interacting and relating with others

  4. Moving about and manipulating objects

  5. Caring for oneself

  6. Health and physical well-being

The SSA will evaluate your child's functional limitations in each of these domains to determine whether they have a qualifying disability. To do this, the SSA may consider information from a variety of sources, including medical records, school records, and statements from you and your child's doctors.

It's important to note that even if your child has a diagnosis of a disability, they may not automatically qualify for SSI benefits. The SSA will consider the severity of your child's functional limitations in each domain and how those limitations affect their ability to perform age-appropriate activities.

In addition to evaluating a child's functional limitations in the six domains of functioning, the SSA also has a list of medical conditions that automatically qualify a child for SSI benefits. These conditions are known as the Childhood Listing of Impairments and include conditions such as cerebral palsy, Down syndrome, and certain types of cancer. If your child's condition is on the Childhood Listing of Impairments, they will automatically be found to have a qualifying disability and will be eligible for SSI benefits. However, it's important to note that not all disabilities are listed, and even if your child's condition is not on the list, they may still be eligible for benefits if they meet the eligibility requirements based on their functional limitations.​

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