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Definition of Disability for Disabled Worker's Benefits

Excerpted from "Social Security Handbook". See the up-to-date, official Social Security Handbook at


507. Definition of Disability for Disabled Worker's Benefits

507.1 When are you considered "disabled"?

You are considered "disabled" and entitled to disabled worker's benefits if you meet the following conditions:

  1. You are unable to engage in any substantial gainful activity (see §603) because of a physical or mental impairment (see §601). You must not only be unable to do your previous work, but also any other type of work considering your age, education, and work experience (see §609);

    Note: It does not matter whether such work exists in your immediate area, whether a specific job vacancy exists, or whether you would be hired if you applied for work.

  2. Your impairment(s) must be established by objective medical evidence;

  3. It is expected that your impairment(s) will either result in death or last for at least 12 months in a row; and

  4. You must meet the non-medical criteria needed to be insured by the program.

Note: The definition of disability above also applies to adults (persons age 18 or over) for determining eligibility on the basis of disability under the SSI program.

507.2 Is blindness considered a disability?

Yes. For Social Security purposes, "blindness" is either of the following:

  1. Central visual acuity of 20/200 or less in the better eye with the use of a correcting lens; or

  2. A limitation in the field of vision so that the widest diameter of the visual field is an angle of 20 degrees or less (tunnel vision).

Note: The same definition of blindness applies to all applicants for purposes of determining eligibility on the basis of blindness under the SSI program.

507.3 How is disability determined for blind persons who are age 55 or older?

Under title II, there is a special blindness rule if you are a blind worker who is at least 55. You are considered disabled if the following conditions are met:

  1. You cannot engage in substantial gainful activity because of your blindness; or

  2. You cannot engage in substantial gainful activity requiring skills or abilities comparable to those of any gainful activity that you previously could do with some regularity and over a substantial period of time.

No benefits are payable for any month that you engage in substantial gainful activity. (See §505(C).)

507.4 Are impairments relating to your commission of a felony covered by disability cash benefits?

Under title II, if you committed a felony after October 19, 1980, you are not entitled to disability cash benefits if:

  1. Your impairments (or the aggravation of preexisting impairments) are related to your commission of the felony; or

  2. Your impairments (or the aggravation of preexisting impairments) are related to your confinement in a correctional facility for the conviction of the felony.

507.5 Can a period of disability be established for impairments relating to your commission of a felony?

Although you may not be eligible for cash benefits, your confinement-related impairments and impairments aggravated by your confinement may be used to establish a period of disability. You can apply to have your Social Security records show how long you are disabled. If a period of disability is established, the months in that period of time are not counted in computing your average earnings for any future benefits.

507.6 Are impairments relating to drug or alcohol abuse covered by disability benefits?

For both title II and title XVI, you cannot be considered disabled if drug or alcohol abuse is a contributing factor of disability. This is true regardless of age.

(See §512, §515, and §517, respectively, for definitions of disability relating to establishing a period of disability, establishing entitlement to disabled widow(er)'s benefits, and benefits for a disabled son or daughter age 18 or over.)

(See Chapter 6 for a further explanation of how disability is evaluated.)

Last Revised: Jan. 22, 2008


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