The Social Security Administration uses its own definition of disability in order to decide whether someone can receive Disability Insurance, or SSI benefits based on disability. The definition of disability under Social Security is different from those used in other programs. Social Security does not pay benefits for partial disability or for short-term disability.

Social Security Disability Defined

For adults, disability is based on your inability to work. A person is disabled if they are unable to perform the duties of any type of work, as a result of a medical condition (physical, mental or a combination of problems), and the disability has lasted or is expected to last for at least one year or to result in death.

How Social Security Disability Claims Are Decided

Social Security Disability law can be complicated, which is why most persons seek representation from an attorney for an appeal. The following 5 step process is a simplified version of the questions Social Security asks in disability cases:

1. Are you working? If you are currently working, you are not considered to be disabled. Some part-time work, or unsuccessful attempts to work are not considered “substantial” work. This is usually determined by the amount of money a person has earned.

2. Do you have a “severe” medical condition? This is determined by its effect on your ability to work, rather than on pure medical factors.

3. Do you meet the criteria found in the list of disabling conditions? There are some conditions which are so severe that they are automatically disabling. This usually requires a combination of a diagnosis, and major restrictions on your ability to function.

4. Can you do the work you did previously? Social Security will look at any work you have done in the past 15 years, and decide if you are capable of returning to that type of work. They don’t consider whether a particular job is available to you, but only whether you are capable of doing the work on a full-time basis.

5. Can you do any other type of work? If you cannot perform any of your past work, they will ask whether there is any other suitable work which you could perform. At this stage, they will consider your age, education, and any skills you have acquired in your past work, along with any medical limitations you have, in order to determine what type of work you might be able to perform.

At steps 4 and 5 of the process, Social Security will determine your “residual functional capacity.” This is a fancy way of saying that they will decide what you can, and cannot do, in terms of what is required in various types of jobs.

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