Social Security disability law defines “disability” as an 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.”
An individual is not “disabled” if drug addiction or alcoholism would “be a contributing factor material to the Commissioner’s determination that the individual is disabled.”
However, you cannot always rely on common sense to tell you who is and who is not disabled under Social Security law. Here are some examples:
- He is 35 years old with 10 years of trial experience.
- He is not working, but he is looking for a job.
- He lost his left foot in a car accident a year ago.
Because of stump complications, he is unable to use a prosthetic device to walk one block at a reasonable pace, though he uses it to walk shorter distances, e.g., around an office or around his apartment. When he goes longer distances, he rides a motorized scooter.
- He has a college education.
- He is a quadriplegic with only limited use of his right hand and arm and no use whatsoever of his legs and left arm.
- He uses an arm brace to write.
- He works a few hours per day as a bookkeeper and earns, after deductions for expenses related to his impairment, about $1,050 per month on average.
Because of his earnings he is not disabled.
Example: Construction worker
- He is 48 years old.
- He has done heavy unskilled construction work since age 16.
- He has a fourth-grade education and is capable of reading only rudimentary things like inventory lists and simple instructions.
- He has a “low normal” I.Q.
- He is limited to sedentary work because of a heart condition.
He is not disabled unless he has some additional limitations.
Example: Machine operator
- He is 38 years old.
- He has done medium exertion level unskilled factory work, operating a machine since he graduated from high school.
- A cardiovascular impairment limits him to sedentary work, and a permanent injury of the right hand limits him to such work not requiring bimanual dexterity.
He is probably disabled.
Example: Truck driver
- He is 61 years old.
- He worked as a truck driver all his life except that 10 years ago during a downturn in the trucking industry, he worked for 1-1/2 years at a sedentary office job which he got with the help of his brother-in-law.
- He is limited to sedentary work because of a pulmonary impairment.
He is not disabled because he is still capable of doing the office job.
- He is 50 years old.
- He has a high school education.
- He has done unskilled light exertion factory work as a packer for the past 30 years.
- He had a heart attack on January 1 and, after being off work for eight months, he recovered after an angioplasty. His cardiologist gave him a clean bill of health and was ready to send him back to work when he broke his leg in a fall unrelated to his heart condition. In a cast and unable to stand and walk as required by his job, he could not return to work until February. He was off work a total of 13 months.
He is not disabled for the time he was off work based on Step 3 of the Sequential Evaluation Process. A regulation provides that unrelated impairments may not be combined to meet the requirement that a claimant be unable to work for 12 months.
- She is 55 years old.
- She has an eleventh-grade education.
- She has not worked in the past 15 years. Before that she was a secretary.
- She has a back problem diagnosed as status post laminectomy.
- She is limited to maximum lifting of 50 lbs. with frequent lifting of 25 lbs., is capable of frequent bending, stooping, etc., and has no limitation for standing or walking.
She is disabled for the SSI program as long as she meets the income and asset limitations for that program. She is not eligible for Social Security disability benefits because she has not worked for so long.