When Is a Person Considered Disabled by Social Security Disability?

What constitutes disability? For Social Security disability or SSI purposes, to be considered disabled, individuals must have an impairment, either medical, psychological, or psychiatric in nature, that keeps them from being able to do substantial gainful activity (SGA, discussed below). In addition, the disabled person’s impairment must have prevented the individual from doing SGA for at least 12 months, or be expected to prevent the individual from doing SGA for at least 12 months. (This durational requirement means that while severe back conditions can qualify for Social Security disability or SSI, wrist or ankle sprains seldom qualify as disabling conditions.)

Substantial Gainful Activity

To be considered a disabled person for Social Security purposes, a disability applicant must be unable to perform substantial work. Generally, this means working and earning above a certain amount; currently, making over $1,070 per month. But for the self-employed (people who own businesses or do contract work), there are other tests Social Security uses to determine if someone is doing SGA.

Applicants cannot be working above the SGA level when they apply for benefits (some applicants keep working, planning to quit if they qualify for benefits). A person earning more than the SGA amount who applies for Social Security disability or SSI benefits will be denied the same day without having their impairments or medical records even considered. (This is referred to as a “technical denial.”) However, disabled individuals may be working part-time when they apply for Social Security disability, as long as they do not earn more than the SGA amount (as long as this doesn’t lead Social Security to think you could work a full-time job). —(see residual functional capacity)

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