How Does Social Security Define “Disability?” Hint: It’s not the “Inability to Work.”

March 8, 2022

The Social Security Administration (SSA) defines “disability” as the inability to do any substantial gainful activity (SGA). The reason must be medically determinable physical or mental impairments which have lasted or can be expected to last at least 12 months, or can be expected to lead to death.

This may sound like a bunch of confusing legalese. To simplify it, notice what is missing: the “inability to work.” The inability to work and the inability to perform any substantial gainful activity are two very different concepts. Understanding the difference is important to better understanding how to qualify for Social Security Disability benefits.

“SGA” describes a level of work activity and earnings. In general, if you are working and earning more than $1350 gross per month (in 2022), you are engaging in SGA. (If you are self-employed, or part of the gig economy, the SSA may consider you to be engaging in SGA even if you are earning less than the SGA amount—if your work is significant to the operation of the business, or if you are performing the work like others in the same or similar businesses.)

So, what does this all mean for someone applying for Social Security Disability benefits? What this means is that to prove you have a disability under Social Security’s rules, you at a minimum must prove you are incapable of earning more than $1350 per month due to your health problems. This standard is different, and higher—much more specific—than an inability to work full-time, an inability to perform work in your field, or an inability to earn enough to support a certain standard of living.

We are often asked how Social Security could deny a case if a person’s own doctor states that they are “unable to work” or “disabled.” The reason is that the SSA has no idea what the doctor means when they say this. The word “disabled” can mean different things to different people and even to different parts of the government. Webster’s Dictionary defines “disabled” as “incapacitated by illness or injury; also: physically or mentally impaired in a way that substantially limits activity especially in relation to employment or education.” Your doctor may have a somewhat different definition. But the only definition that counts for qualifying for disability benefits, is the one applied by the SSA: the inability to engage in SGA.

As you can see, proving that you qualify for Social Security Disability is different than you may think. That is why it is helpful to have a knowledgeable and experienced attorney in your corner, a Social Security Disability attorney, who understands the complex rules governing disability benefits.

Having a Social Security Disability attorney can help you get the right information from your doctor that will be useful in your particular case. We can ask your doctor the right questions so that, if professionally comfortable, he or she can explain your limitations and why you are not able to engage in SGA. See “The Secret To Winning Your Disability Case.”

Statistics from the Government Accounting Office show that you are almost three times more likely to be granted disability benefits if you have a representative like an attorney when you talk to a disability judge.

You can call Nash Disability Law at 312.883.9465 or contact us through our website for a free review of your case. We can offer you the best possible advice for your unique situation.