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What is “disability” for Social Security Administration?

Disability is a fluid term, and has a number of meanings depending on the context in which it is used, like many other terms. When it comes to disability benefits, though, disability has a very specific meaning.

That meaning is different for the Veterans Administration and the Social Security Administration, and those seeking benefits from these agencies must meet the unique requirements of each—qualifying for one doesn’t mean one will qualify for the other. 

For the purpose of determining eligibility for Social Security disability benefits, disability has a strict meaning: inability to engage in “substantial gainful activity.” What is that? It changes every year, but in 2013, substantial gainful activity is the ability to earn $1,040 per month. To qualify for Social Security disability benefits, an inability to engage in substantial gainful activity must be due to a severe physical or mental impairment that is expected to last at least one year or to result in death.

The impairment can actually be a combination of impairments—it doesn’t have to be just one, but it must be so severe that the applicant is unable to engage in any other kind of substantial gainful work that exists in significant numbers in the national economy. It means that one can’t earn the minimum amount of money in any avenue of work.

For the Veterans Administration, disability is evaluated a bit differently. Those used to one system sometime think the two use the same procedure, but that is incorrect. In our next post, we’ll look briefly at some of the differences.

Source: Center for American Progress, “The Facts on Social Security Disability Insurance and Supplemental Security Income for Workers with Disabilities,” Shawn Fremstad & Rebecca Vallas, May 30, 2013.