Do You Have a Disability?

In addition to checking whether you are insured, Social Security checks whether you have a disability that meets their criteria. To figure this out, Social Security looks at everything you submit with your SSDI application and follows a five-step process.

If you are insured and Social Security says you have a disability, you may qualify for Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) benefits.

Note: Social Security does not follow these steps if you are blind and instead uses special rules. Usually, if your vision in your better eye cannot be corrected to better than 20/200 or your field of view is 20 degrees or less, you are considered blind. Learn more about Social Security’s rules on blindness.

Step 1: Are You Working at a Level of Substantial Gainful Activity?

If you are working and your monthly earnings before taxes are taken out are higher than the Substantial Gainful Activity (SGA) level, you don't have a disability according to Social Security and don't qualify for SSDI benefits. In 2019, SGA is $1,220 ($2,040 if you're blind).

If you are not working or if your earnings are less than the SGA level, Social Security moves on to the next step to decide if you have a disability.

Example

Rose earns $22.00 per hour and works 60 hours per month. Her gross monthly earnings are $1,320 ($22.00 x 60), though after taxes are deducted, her actual paycheck is only $1,120.

Even though Rose only gets $1,120 per month in checks, Social Security counts all of her $1,320 in gross monthly earnings. Since $1,320 is more than the SGA level ($1,220), Social Security says she does not have a disability that stops her from working.

Some SSDI work rules may put your countable earnings below the SGA level
If your earned income is over the SGA level, there are some rules, called deductions, that might lower how much of your income Social Security counts and help you get SSDI. The most common deductions are Impairment Related Work Expenses (IRWEs) and subsidized earnings.

You have to tell Social Security about them when you apply for benefits. Learn more about SSDI deductions.

SGA and Self-Employment

If you’re self-employed, Social Security uses three special tests to compare your income to SGA, because the amount of money you actually get from your business depends on a lot of things.

If Social Security decides that you are not doing Substantial Gainful Activity using all three tests, you may qualify for SSDI.

Note: If you are self-employed and either blind or over age 55, there are special SGA rules. For more information, talk to a Work Incentives Planning and Assistance (WIPA) counselor.

Self-Employed Test 1: Significant Services and Substantial Income

If you do a lot of work that is important for your business and you get a lot of income from the business, Social Security likely decides that you can support yourself (are doing SGA) and do not qualify for SSDI.

According to Social Security, the services you perform are significant if:

  • You operate a business (other than a farm) all by yourself, or
  • You and at least one other person run the business and you do more than half of the management time. For example, if it takes 60 hours a month to manage your business and you manage it for 45 of those hours, your services are significant.

According to Social Security, your income is substantial if:

If Test 1 shows you are not doing Substantial Gainful Activity, Social Security moves on to Test 2.

Self-Employed Test 2: Comparing Work Activity

Social Security looks at things like hours worked, skills needed, responsibilities, and effort involved to see if it counts as SGA.

If the work you do is about the same as the work of people without disabilities who are in similar businesses in your community, Social Security likely decides that you can work enough to support yourself (are doing SGA) and do not qualify for SSDI.

If Test 2 shows you are not doing Substantial Gainful Activity, Social Security moves on to Test 3.

Self-Employed Test 3: Worth of Work Activity

Social Security looks at your monthly work. If they think your work is worth more than $1,220 per month for your business, or if you would have had to pay someone else at least $1,220 per month to do that work, Social Security likely decides that you can work enough to support yourself (are doing SGA) and do not qualify for SSDI.

If Test 3 shows that you are not doing Substantial Gainful Activity, Social Security moves on to step 2 of the disability determination process and you may qualify for SSDI.

Step 2: Is Your Condition Severe?

For Social Security to say you have a disability, your condition must be expected to either:

  • Significantly limit your ability to perform basic work activities for at least 12 consecutive months, or
  • Result in death.

If it does, Social Security moves on to step 3 to decide if you have a disability.

If it does not, you are not considered to have a disability and do not qualify for SSDI benefits. You can appeal this decision.

Step 3: Is Your Condition on Social Security’s List of Impairments?

Social Security has a List of Impairments that automatically mean you have a disability. It includes many mental and physical conditions. If your condition is on the list, Social Security says that you have a disability and skips steps 4 and 5.

If your condition is not on the list, Social Security decides if your condition is as severe as a condition that is on the list. If it is, Social Security says that you have a disability and skips steps 4 and 5.

If your condition is not as severe, Social Security moves on to steps 4 and 5 to decide if you have a disability.

Step 4: Can You Do the Same Work You Did Before?

If your condition doesn’t stop you from doing the work you did before, Social Security says you do not have a disability and do not qualify for SSDI benefits.

If your condition does stop you from doing the same work you did before, Social Security moves on to the fifth step to decide if you have a disability.

Example

Wilson was a construction worker. He crashed his motorcycle one day and severely injured his knees. Because he has limited mobility and can no longer stand for long periods of time, he can’t do construction anymore.

Wilson cannot do the same work he did before and SSA moves on to step 5 to see if he has a disability.

Step 5: Can You Do Any Other Type of Work?

If you can’t do the work you used to do, Social Security looks at your age, education, skills, and condition to see if there is other work you could do.

If your condition doesn’t stop you from doing other work and earning at the SGA level, you aren’t considered to have a disability and don't qualify for SSDI benefits.

Example

While Wilson’s injury stops him from doing construction on site, he has experience managing and could still manage construction projects from a desk, so Social Security might say he doesn’t have a disability.

If your condition does stop you from doing other work and earning at the SGA level, Social Security says that you have a disability, as long as your disability met the other four criteria.

If you are insured and have a disability, you may qualify for SSDI benefits.