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How Do I Apply for Social Security Disability Benefits?

Updated: Dec 1, 2023

Woman applying online for SSD Benefits
Woman applying online for SSD Benefits

Close to 66 million Americans received Social Security benefits. While the majority of them are retirees, roughly 8.2 million receive Social Security Disability Insurance, or SSDI.

To be approved, applicants must be diagnosed with an injury or medical condition that prevents them from working for at least a year or is expected to result in death. (Benefits are not offered for short-term or partial impairments.)

Certain family members of workers with disabilities can also receive benefits. And adults who have been disabled since childhood may qualify for SSDI, based on their parent’s employment record.

Another form of disability benefit is Supplemental Security Income, or SSI. Though managed by Social Security, it’s funded by the Treasury Department and is aimed at individuals whose disability has kept them from entering the workforce.

Applicants for either benefit need to present considerable medical evidence to support a disability claim. And the process usually includes an in-person or phone interview with a Social Security representative.

Here’s what you need to know to apply for Social Security disability benefits, including what benefits are available and what conditions qualify.

How do I apply for Social Security Disability Insurance?

You should apply for disability benefits as soon as you become disabled. You can apply online, by calling 800-772-1213 or in person at your local Social Security office.

Whichever route you go, you’ll want to have the extensive documentation required at the ready — including detailed information about your condition and recent employment history.

Less than half of disability applicants are accepted on their first try.

To qualify for disability you cannot already be receiving Social Security benefits and must not have been denied disability benefits in the past 60 days.

When you apply, be patient: A majority of disability claims are denied at first and the appeals process can take months — or even years — to resolve. (Only 193,000 of more than 500,000 applicants’ claims were accepted in the first quarter of 2019, according to Social Security Administration.)

Even getting a preliminary decision on your application takes more than five months on average, according to AARP.

What conditions qualify you for Social Security Disability Insurance?

There is no set list of approved disabilities, but the Social Security Blue Book, also known as Disability Evaluation Under Social Security, is an online directory of physical and mental health conditions that automatically qualify if you meet the stringent requirements for diagnosis.

For adults, they are broadly split into 14 categories.

  • Blood disorders like sickle cell anemia, thrombosis and hemophilia

  • Cancer, including Leukemia, lymphoma, multiple myeloma, breast cancer and prostate cancer

  • Cardiovascular illnesses, such as congenital heart disease and heart failure

  • Cognitive and mental health conditions, such as bipolar disorder, dementia, depression and intellectual disabilities

  • Congenital disorders that affect multiple body systems, such as non-mosaic Down syndrome

  • Digestive system illnesses, such as bowel or liver disease

  • Endocrine disorders, such as diabetes, thyroid disease, hyperglycemia and hypoglycemia

  • Genitourinary disorders like chronic kidney disease

  • Immune system diseases like HIV, inflammatory arthritis and lupus

  • Musculoskeletal issues that are congenital or acquired, such as spinal disorders or amputations

  • Neurological disorders, such as Parkinson’s disease, epilepsy, multiple sclerosis and traumatic brain injuries

  • Respiratory illnesses, such as asthma, cystic fibrosis and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)

  • Special sense and speech disorders, such as impaired hearing, sight and speech

  • Skin disorders, such as burns, dermatitis and ichthyosis

The same 14 categories are used for children under 18, with the addition of low birth weight and failure to thrive. Rather than looking at whether a condition inhibits their ability to work, the criteria for minors is whether it will cause severe functional limitations for at least a year or is likely to be fatal.

You can still qualify for SSDI or SSI even if your condition is not in the Blue Book but you will have to make a strong case that it limits your daily functioning.

If your disability means you can’t do the work you did previously, the Social Security Administration will want to know if there is other work you can do, considering your circumstances and skills.

What’s the difference between Social Security Disability Insurance and Supplemental Security Income?

Social Security Disability Claim Approved
Social Security Disability Claim Approved

While SSDI is an earned benefit based on Social Security taxes you’ve paid in during your career, you can receive SSI payments without ever having worked.

Both SSDI and SSI pay benefits to people that the Social Security Administration determines have physical or mental disabilities severe enough to prevent them from engaging in “substantial gainful activity” for at least a year or that are expected to end in their death.

The Social Security Administration generally uses the same medical criteria to determine if a disability entitles an adult to SSDI or SSI and collecting both benefits is allowed.

SSDI is an earned benefit. As with retirement benefits, it comes from paying Social Security taxes during the course of your employment. In 2022, the estimated average monthly SSDI benefit was $1,358.

There’s a five-month waiting period for SSDI benefits, so payments will not begin before the sixth full month of disability. You’ll be eligible for Medicare coverage after you’ve received disability benefits for two years.

SSI, meanwhile, is aimed at disabled Americans with very limited income or assets. It doesn’t come from previous earnings. In fact, you can receive SSI benefits if you’ve never worked or paid Social Security tax.

But your income and assets must not go above very strict caps: In 2022, the maximum federal SSI payment was $841 a month for an individual and $1,261 for couples receiving SSI jointly. Income above those amounts can make you ineligible to receive benefits.

Other benefits, including workman’s compensation and pension payments, can also impact how much you receive.

You can start the process of applying for SSDI here and SSI here.

The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.

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