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What Does Unable To Work Mean To Social Security?


Background: The idea behind Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) is to provide benefits for a long-term illness that prevents you from doing any type of work, not temporary conditions such as a broken bone. This is the reason many cancer survivors have problems qualifying for SSDI, especially during treatment when there is likely to be an expectation of recovery.

All the Social Security paperwork, including medical forms, and investigation of medical records are designed to determine whether you meet the definition for the type of physical or mental condition and ability to work that meets Social Security rules.

The key isn't whether you can work at all. The question is whether you can work as defined by Social Security's rules.

Unable to Work: Social Security requires that you become unable to work because of a "total disability." For adults that means:

  • You must not be working or, if you do work, you do not earn over $1,000 a month in 2010 (this amount varies from year-to-year), and
  • You are unable to perform your job and any job for which you are qualified based on your age, education and work experience. While Social Security refers to "any" job, the key is whether you can perform any job as defined by Social Security.
  • When determining whether you cannot work, Social Security gives consideration to your background, education (including how well you are able to communicate in English), work experience, and age.

For information on what is considered to be income and "work", see Substantial Gainful Activity.

When looking at whether there is another job you can perform, it doesn't matter whether the kind of work Social Security looks at exists in the immediate area, or whether a specific job vacancy exists, or even whether you would be hired if you applied for work.

Social Security can be expected to be more lenient in finding a 55 year-old disabled, for example, than a 30 year-old with the same condition who could be retrained for a new position.

Blindness and Children: There is a different definition for blindness and claims of disabled children. For example, people disabled by blindness can earn $1,640 a month in 2010 (this amount varies from year to year).

The wording of the statutory definition of "disability" is contained in Section 223(d) of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. - 423(d). It defines disability as "inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which . . . has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months.

Felonies: If you cannot work because of a felony or aggravations of pre-existing health conditions related to confinement in a correctional facility for conviction of a felony, you may not be able to work, but it doesn't count for purposes of SSDI.

Alcohol and Drug Addiction: If you cannot work because of alcohol or drug addition, it also doesn't count as a covered disability for purposes of SSDI. However, health conditions resulting from past addiction, such as liver problems due to alcohol, are covered disabilities.

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