How Are You Declared Legally Disabled?

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"Disabled" is one of those words that means one thing when used in common speech and is given another definition in laws and regulations. To be legally declared disabled for Social Security purposes, a person must meet the Social Security Administration's definition of disabled. This, in turn, is very different than the use of the term in the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

Disabled: Common Speech

In common speech, the term "disabled" means impaired or limited by a physical, mental, cognitive or developmental condition. Someone who breaks their leg skiing may consider herself temporarily disabled, since there are many activities she could do previously that she cannot do while her leg heals.

Think of a car that is in an accident and remains disabled by the side of the freeway. Some people use the term in that sense, without taking ability to work into the picture. But losing the ability to work is central to Social Security disability.

Social Security Disability Programs

The largest federal programs that provide help to people with disabilities are the Social Security Disability Income (SSDI) program and the Supplemental Security Income (SSI) disability program. Only disabled individuals who have worked and paid taxes into Social Security for a set number of years are eligible for the SSDI program. The SSI program is based on a person's needs rather than their work history.

The Social Security Administration (SSA) administers both of these programs and sets the medical criteria that qualify a person for disability programs. Generally, a person must have been unable to work for a year or more due to a disability to be declared disabled for SSDI or SSI programs.

Read More: How Often Does Social Security Disability Review Cases?

Social Security Definition of Disabled

It is important to remember that Social Security uses a strict definition of disability. It only makes disability payments to those who have a total disability. It does not offer any benefits for a partial disability or one that is shorter term.

A person is considered disabled for Social Security purposes if she cannot do the work she did before the medical condition, and if the condition also prevents her from adjusting to other work. The medical condition of the applicant must significantly limit her ability to do basic things like sitting, standing, lifting, walking and thinking. It must last at least 12 months. If it does not meet this definition, the SSA will adjudge the person not disabled.

Filing for Disability Benefits With SSA

A person who seeks Social Security disability benefits must complete the disability application, answering questions about health problems, daily activities, work history and recent medical treatment. The applicant can also submit other evidence, including:

  • A document setting out the history of her medical diagnoses.
  • Results from any clinical exams.
  • X-ray results and other laboratory findings.
  • Current diagnoses of disabling conditions.
  • Current treatment and treatment history.
  • A prognosis.
  • A statement from the treatment provider about the applicant's limitations, what she cannot do and what she can still do.

The Disability Determination Services in the applicant's state reviews this evidence, giving substantial weight to a treating doctor's opinion. It determines whether the applicant is disabled and, based on this, approves or denies the claim. Anyone denied benefits will have to appeal in order to take the matter further.

ADA Definition of Disabled

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is a civil rights law that prohibits discrimination against individuals with disabilities. The ADA's definition of “disability” is a legal term, not a medical one. It is significantly different from how disability is defined for the purposes of Social Security Disability benefits.

The ADA defines a disability as any physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities. For ADA purposes, a person with a disability will include people who have a history of this kind of impairment, even if they do not currently have the impairment.

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