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What counts as "disabled" in the US?

Updated: Jun 22, 2023

A parking space with a handicap symbol in the middle
Symbol; Photo by AbsolutVision on UnSplash

*Updated 6/22/23 to add a link for more information about SSI/SSDI*

What the US defines as a disability—and when they’ll offer help—is extremely confusing and can be difficult to sort out. I muddled through on my own, but I hope that giving you some (hopefully easier to understand) explanation might help out.

There are two (main) different definitions of disability in the US. The first one is who deserves public access accommodations through the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the second is how the Social Security Administration (SSA) defines who will get money from them while disabled. There are differences in how housing and jobs can define (and must accommodate) disabilities, but we’re going to focus on the first two for this post.

The ADA’s Definition:

The ADA defines "disability" as “a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities of such individual, a record of such an impairment, or being regarded as having such an impairment” for issues that are expected to last more than 6 months. It goes on to clarify that “major life activities” can be anything from caring for oneself to concentrating, seeing, hearing, walking, or even major bodily function troubles (such as gastroenterological problems). It also mentions that aids (such as a cane, a service dog, medication, etc.) do not affect whether or not something can be considered a disability.

This is important because it is a very wide definition. Someone who is near-sighted and has to wear glasses all the time could, technically, be considered disabled, though it is highly unlikely that they would need public accommodations, so the ADA probably wouldn’t apply in their situation. More importantly, this covers people in wheelchairs or with other mobility aids, people with service dogs, and that kind of thing.

For the ADA, as long as something decreases the functionality of someone, they can be considered disabled and are able to request reasonable accommodations in relation to being in government-run or publicly accessible locations.

The SSA’s Definition:

The SSA, on the other hand, has a narrower definition as they use it to determine who is eligible for money. In order to be considered disabled under the SSA, you must answer 5 questions in specific ways:

1. Are you working?

a. If you’re working and earning over a certain amount of money every month, you won’t be considered disabled.

2. Is your condition “severe?”

a. The impairment must have lasted (or be predicted to last) at least 12 months and must “significantly limit” activities such as lifting, walking, sitting, and remembering.

3. Is your condition found in the list of disabling conditions?

a. If the condition is listed and you answered the first two questions “correctly,” you will be considered disabled.

b. If it’s not on the list, you have to move on to question 4.

4. Can you do the work you did previously?

a. If you can still do your old work (regardless of what it was), you’re not considered disabled.

5. Can you do any other type of work?

a. This one is difficult. If you’ve “correctly” gone through the other steps, but the SSA decides that your age, education, skills, etc. can be put to work in a different job, then you won’t be considered disabled.

If you make it through those questions, you can be considered disabled according to the SSA, though that is very difficult as the SSA is very selective and will often deny applications multiple times unless you use a lawyer to help you file for disability.

SSA Benefits

If you do make it through the SSA application process, there is another step in the SSA Disability process: the two different ways you can get money. The first is Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI), which requires having worked in jobs that meet certain qualifications.

Specifically, you need to have had time to learn “all the functions” of the job you were in, you must have earned enough over a year for it to be considered a “substantial gainful activity,” and it must have been in the last 10-15 years. You also must have worked a certain number of hours over that 10-20 year period of time, with a certain amount in the last 10 years.

If you don’t qualify for SSDI, then you can always try for Supplemental Security Income (SSI). This is meant for those who have little to no (household) income. Even if you are not working, but your spouse is, you can be disqualified for this benefit because you, as a couple, make too much money.

The SSA has a screening test to determine if you might be eligible for either of those benefits, which includes calculations of your income.

Main Differences Between Definitions

The SSA’s definition of disability is specifically used in order to determine benefits while the ADA, on the other hand, is used for accommodations in regards to being in public. The SSA is the more strict definition, requiring at least a year for the health issue as well as certain job history and projected job future. It’s important to note that being “disabled” for the ADA’s purposes does not require being able to pass the SSA’s screening. However, if you pass the SSA’s screening, you would also qualify under the ADA.

If you'd like some more details about SSI/SSDI, who qualifies, why people get denied, and more, you can also look at this great article here (written by the law firm of Marasco & Nesselbush).

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