Sunday, March 01, 2009

Should I apply for SSI? I have a degree and a small disability

Someone recently asked if they should apply for SSI, noting that they had a college degree, and describing their condition as a "small disability". I used to be a disability examiner for the social security administration's disability determination services. I usually tell people to initiate filing a claim for disability if they are either unable to work and earn what the social security administration refers to as a substantial and gainful income, or, for those who are currently working, if their medical condition begins to limit them to the extent that it is beginning to affect their ability to perform their job and has also (this part is very important) limited their presence on the job to the extent that their earnings are now below the threshold for SGA.

SGA is the acronym for substantial gainful activity and it refers to a dollar amount cutoff. Basically, if you work and make less than this amount, you can apply for disability. If you work and earn more than this amount, you can attempt to file, but your claim will be immediately denied and you will be given a "technical denial", meaning your medical records will not even be evaluated because you simply make too much income.

In your case, it sounds as though you have no income. You refer to your education and characterize your disability as a small one. But these really aren't relevant issues for social security disability or SSI disability (a program that supplies disability benefits to those who have not worked long enough to earn the required credits to qualify for disability). Education has only a nominal effect on claims and your disability, as far as SSA is concerned, is only relevant in terms of how it affects your ability to engage in work activity.

For SSI disability and social security disability, the only issue is whether or not your condition prevents you from being able to work and earn a "substantial and gainful income". And the first step to proving that is whether or not you have earnings that are either above or below the SGA limit. If you have earnings below the SGA limit, and it sounds as though you do, then you should be able to file your claim. After that, whether or not you receive benefits will depend on what your medical records have to say about your specific functional limitations.

I should point out that social security is not concerned with your "ability to find a job". That is not a relevant issue (I won't get into vocational issues, the DOT, assertions by vocational experts at hearings, and the "citing of jobs" because I don't think that lends helpfully to this question). What is relevant is that your medical records indicate functional limitations that preclude the possibility of working and earning a substantial and gainful income.

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