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Understanding the SSA definition of disability

Many people in Houston who suffer from a serious illness or injury are uncertain if they are eligible for Social Security disability (SSD) benefits. They may understand that total disability is a prerequisite for receiving such benefits, but they may have only a vague idea of how the Social Security Administration (SSA) defines that term. Fortunately, the SSA has adopted regulations that provide a precise and comprehensive definition.

As defined by the SSA, "disability" means the inability to engage in "substantial gainful activity." That definition may not seem to provide much clarity, but the SSA has tied the definition to specified amounts of money that equal substantial gainful activity. The SSA has set two income levels to define substantial gainful activity, one level for people who are blind and one for people who are not blind. The specific amount has changed from year to year depending upon changes in the national average wage index.

For 2019, the cap on monthly income for blind individuals is $2,040; for non-blind individuals, the cap is $1,220. As examples of how the limit has changed, the limit for blind persons in 2010 was $1,640, and in 2017, it was $1,950. For non-blind individuals, the cap in 2010 was $1,000, and in 2017, it was $1,170. If the United States economy continues to expand, these limits will also increase every year.

SSD benefits also depend upon the extent and duration of the applicant's inability to engage in substantial gainful activity. The disability must have been determined based upon competent medical evidence to be permanent, that is, the disability must be expected to last for at least 12 consecutive months or to result in the death of the applicant. The disability must also be total; the applicant must not be able to perform any income producing work that provides income exceeding the specified limits.

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