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SSA: What is Disability?

Federal and state agencies, including SSA define the term “disability” in various ways. It is important to understand how SSA defines disability.

Disability and Work

The Social Security Administration (SSA) recognizes that a person can have a serious illness or condition yet still be able to work. For example, many people with serious mental illnesses in recovery are able to work. Many enjoy the benefits of work, including:

  • An income that goes beyond meeting the most basic needs
  • A sense of accomplishment and identity
  • The satisfaction of being productive members of their communities
SOAR helps people to access SSI/SSDI in the hope they will eventually be able to enjoy these benefits.

SSA's Definition of Disability

The Social Security Administration (SSA) defines disability as:

  • The inability to engage in substantial gainful activity (SGA)
  • Because of medically determinable physical or mental impairment(s)
  • That has lasted or is expected to last for a continuous period of at least 12 months OR is expected to result in death

Substantial gainful activity (SGA)

  • SSA term with specific criteria and calculations
  • Activities that are productive (mental or physical)
  • “Gainful” – work activity for pay or profit, even if profit is not realized
  • Earnings of $1,550/month in 2024
  • SSA and DDS need to know: Can the person work at levels of SGA?

Medically determinable

  • Physical or mental health conditions
  • Must be documented with clear evidence by an acceptable medical source as defined by SSA

Impaired functioning

  • For SSA to consider a person “disabled,” the person’s illness must result in impairments of functioning that meet SSA criteria
  • These impairments must affect his or her ability to work
  • It is essential to fully describe and document the severity of these impairments

Providing the Evidence

It may seem apparent to some that an individual is disabled and unable to work. However, for SSA and DDS to make a disability determination, the application must:

  • Document the illness(es) and condition(s)
  • Demonstrate that the illness(es) impair functioning
  • Show how these impairments affect the person’s ability to work