Understanding the Definition of ‘Disabled’ for SSDI and SSI: A Guide to Eligibility and Legal Advice

Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) and Supplemental Security Income (SSI) are two government programs that provide financial assistance to individuals who are unable to work due to a disability. However, before receiving benefits, applicants must meet the Social Security Administration’s (SSA) definition of ‘disabled.’ Understanding this definition is crucial for those seeking disability benefits.

The SSA’s Definition of ‘Disabled’

The SSA defines ‘disabled’ as having a physical or mental impairment that prevents an individual from engaging in substantial gainful activity (SGA). SGA is defined as any work that involves earning more than a certain amount of income each month. In 2021, the SGA threshold for non-blind individuals is $1,310 per month, while the threshold for blind individuals is $2,190 per month.

Additionally, the impairment must be expected to last for at least 12 months or result in death. The SSA also takes into consideration an applicant’s age, education, and work history when determining disability.

Medical Evidence

To receive disability benefits, applicants must provide medical evidence that supports their claim of being ‘disabled.’ This evidence can include medical records, doctor’s statements, and test results. The SSA may also require applicants to undergo a medical evaluation to determine the severity of their impairment.

It is important to note that not all medical impairments automatically qualify an individual for disability benefits. The SSA maintains a listing of impairments that it considers severe enough to prevent an individual from engaging in SGA. However, even if an individual’s impairment is not listed, they may still be eligible for benefits if it prevents them from working.

Appealing a Denial of Benefits

Unfortunately, many initial applications for disability benefits are denied. In fact, more than half of all initial applications are denied. However, applicants have the right to appeal a denial of benefits.

Appeals must be filed within 60 days of receiving the denial letter, and the appeals process can be lengthy and complex. It is important to seek legal advice from an experienced disability attorney to ensure that the appeal is handled properly.


The definition of ‘disabled’ is a crucial aspect of the SSDI and SSI programs. Applicants must provide medical evidence that supports their claim of being ‘disabled’ and meet the SSA’s definition of the term. If an application for benefits is denied, applicants have the right to appeal the decision. Seeking legal advice from a disability attorney can be helpful throughout the application and appeals process.

Thomas Elliott

Education: Brooklyn Law School, Brooklyn, New York. Pace University, White Plains, New York.
Professional Associations and Memberships: American Bar Association, New York State Bar, The Association of the Bar of the City of New York, Brooklyn Bar Association, National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys (NAELA).

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