Can Someone Please Tell Me How Social Security Defines “Disability?”

Have you ever wondered what the “definition” of disability is? I know you have…we all believe we know “who” is disabled and “who” is not. Heck, you can tell just by looking at a person! Doctors are usually certain they know whether their patients are disabled.

The obvious question becomes…whose definition of disability are we talking about? If you think everyone (including the Social Security Administration (SSA)) is on the same page…think again! This article is my humble attempt to educate the public, including physicians, as to how SSA defines disability. Please understand it is impossible to capture SSA’s entire definition in a short article; however, it is possible to set forth a general framework.

First, allow me to debunk several longstanding myths regarding SSA’s definition of disability.

Myth #1 You have to be Totally Disabled to be eligible for Disability Benefits

Not true. I am not sure what “totally” disabled means; I do know it is a term of art our society uses, but not one that SSA uses. My guess is that it means a person is unable to function at all in any capacity.

I suspect if you placed 100 doctors in a room and asked each one for definition of “totally disabled,” you would receive a multitude of answers, including that a person must be bedridden or even incapacitated.

In general, to be eligible for disability benefits, SSA does require that you not be working in any capacity. However, this does not mean you have to be to physically and/or psychological unable to function in any capacity.

Myth #2 You have to be Permanently Disabled to be eligible for Disability Benefits

Not true. Again, I am not sure what “permanently” disabled means; it is a term of art our society uses, but not one SSA uses. If a doctor supports a patient’s claim for disability, they will frequently state the patient is “permanently” disabled. The statement may be true in many cases, but my experience is that at the time SSA makes a disability determination, we never have enough information to determine whether the person is “permanently” disabled.

Thankfully, SSA does not require that you be permanently disabled. In fact, the issue of whether a person’s disability is or can be permanent is never an issue at SSA.

So How does SSA Define Disability?

SSA and federal law defines disability as follows, “The inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which can be expected to result in death or which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months.” (citing 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(1)(A) and 1382c(a)(3)(A). (Again, please understand that while this definition applies to everyone seeking disability benefits, the manner in which one proves they are disabled is much more complicated).

A couple of points are worth noting. First, a disability can be due to any medical or psychological diagnosis (disorder). Second, contrary to popular myth, SSA does not require that you be “totally” disabled. Third, with regard to the duration of disability, it does not have to be permanent and only has to prevent you from working for a minimum of 12 months.

Pursuant to Social Security Ruling 96-8p, in determining whether you are disabled, SSA will determine the most you can do even with your impairments. This includes SSA determining the most you can do in a work setting on a regular and continuing basis, 5 days per week, 40 hours per week.

This fact is critical because most people who are approved for disability benefits are able to function during the day; however, they simply cannot sustain full time work. This ruling is a tremendous benefit for social security claimants because SSA has set forth its definition of disability that is very favorable to claimants and much more liberal than society’s definition.

Thus, to meet SSA’s definition of disability, a person must be unable to sustain full time work on a regular and continuing basis. Believe me, many people meet SSA’s definition, the key is how you prove it.

Best of luck in your pursuit of disability benefits and remember never to quit!

Scott E. Davis is a social security and long-term disability insurance attorney in Phoenix, Arizona. Mr. Davis represents clients throughout the United States. Although Mr. Davis has experience representing clients with a broad spectrum of physical and/or psychological disorders, the majority of his disability practice is devoted to representing individuals with chronic pain and chronic fatigue disorders. In almost every case, a fee is charged only if his client obtains benefits. Mr. Davis invites your questions and inquiries regarding representation via telephone (602) 482-4300, or email:

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