Is Disability in Your Future?

The question is so important, yet the answer is so uncertain. It's one of the most common fears when you hear “You have arthritis.” It's not only a worry because you are unsure if you will become disabled in the generic sense of the word, but also if you will meet the definition of disabled which would qualify you for Social Security disability benefits if you have to stop working.

There are definite requirements for Social Security disability. It's never too early to learn what the requirements are, just in case you ever find yourself close to needing the benefit.

Disability, as defined by the Social Security Administration, is “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 less than twelve months.”

To determine if you would qualify for Social Security disability benefits, answer these basic, preliminary questions:

  • Are you currently working?

  • Is your impairment or condition severe?

  • Is your condition on the list of disabling impairments, per Social Security?

  • Does your impairment affect your ability to do the work you have previously done?

  • Can you do any other type of work?

Generally, if your earnings average more than the substantial gainful activity amount ($900 in 2007), as set by Social Security, you may not be considered disabled. Check all of the rules though, because some impairment-related work expenses (IRWE) can be counted.

Clearly, your impairments must interfere with basic work activities for you to be considered disabled by Social Security. If your condition is on their list of impairments, you will have an easier time qualifying. The lists are available online at If your impairment or condition is not on the list, Social Security must decide if your impairment is of equal severity to an impairment that is listed.

Social Security also considers your ability to do the work you have done in the past fifteen years if your impairment is not on the list. If you can't do the previous work you were doing, Social Security considers your age, education, past work experience, or other skills that would enable you to do other work.


What is residual functional capacity?

According to the Social Security Administration, “Your impairment or impairments, and any related symptoms, such as pain, may cause physical and mental limitations that affect what you can do in a work setting. Your residual functional capacity (RFC) is the most you can still do despite your limitations.”

Residual functional capacity (RFC) is assessed by Social Security as part of the criteria used to determine disability. For applicants eighteen to forty-four years old, “less than sedentary” is the maximum allowed. For applicants forty-five to forty-nine years old, who are literate people of all education levels, “less than sedentary” is also the maximum allowed. The maximum RFC allowed for people over fifty years old increases to sedentary, light, or medium work.

If you believe you can no longer work, and if you and your doctors believe you would qualify for Social Security disability, you can begin the application process online ( You can also request the Adult Disability Starter Kits online ( or call Social Security with questions at 800-772-1213.

Even if you aren't ready for Social Security disability at this point, you will gain from learning about it. For example, besides the medical qualification, you have to earn enough work credits and have paid into Social Security to even be considered. You can find information about work-credit requirements online ( If you worked long enough, find out how much you would earn if you were awarded disability benefits. You want no surprises — you must be informed. Did you know that once awarded Social Security benefits, there is a two-year wait before you are enrolled in Medicare? That fact brings up insurance concerns if you become disabled.

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