How Social Security law defines “disability”

According to the Social Security Act, you are disabled if you are unable “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.”

What does this complicated sentence mean?  In a nutshell, to qualify as “disabled”, you have to satisfy a disability examiner or Administrative Law Judge that:

  • You have a medical condition that has lasted or is expected to last for a year or result in death.
  • You cannot do the work that you used to do because of your condition.
  • You cannot adjust to other work because of your condition.

Think of it this way.  Can you do a full-time job for 8 hours a day, 5 days a week?  Can you keep up the pace and quality of your work, week after week?  If not, you may be disabled.

How does Social Security decide whether I meet the definition?

The Social Security regulations provide five steps that the disability examiner or Administrative Law Judge must follow to determine whether you are disabled.

  1. Are you currently engaging in substantial gainful activity (i.e., are you earning more than a minimal income)?  The answer must be “no.”
  2. Do you have a severe physical or mental impairment that’s been confirmed by a doctor? The answer must be “yes.”
  3. Does your impairment meet or equal one of the impairments described in the Social Security regulations known as the Listing of Impairments? If the answer is “yes,” you are disabled.  If the answer is “no,” the evaluation moves on to the next question.
  4. Are unable to do your past relevant work (i.e., the easiest job you had during the past 15 years)?  The answer must be “yes.”
  5. Are you unable to adjust to other work that is available in the national economy in significant numbers considering your age, education, and past experience?  If the answer is “yes,” you are disabled.

To read more about the five steps, see The sequential evaluation process..