I’m not trying to be discouraging or to tell you not to apply.
I have been supported by SSDI(social security disability insurance) for well over 15 years, and I know that my quality of life would be much worse if I were not on this program.
What I do want to do is give you some perspective on the psychological effects of applying, and help you be prepared for what it takes.
Applying for disability is not an “easy way out” of working, it is a challenging and stressful process that can take years to be determined, and there is no guarantee that the decision will be in
“Disability” isn’t the program name
For the federal government, “too disabled to work” means that when you apply you are unemployed and unable to maintain any job.
SSDI coverage is based upon your work history(you are eligible if you have earned enough work credits through taxable employment, and your monthly check is based on your income over the previous 5-10 years), and SSI coverage is lower and based upon financial need and lack of resources(you need to prove that all your assets combined are worth under $2000).
Both programs supply insurance coverage.
SSDI provides Medicare starting 24 months after your eligibility began(now it often takes longer than that to get approved), while SSI provides Medicaid coverage as soon as you qualify). You can apply to both using the same form.
They will make the determination if you are eligible based on the information you provide.
How it works
Once you apply, you shouldn’t work, as you are unable to earn an income. Working at all, in any capacity, may lead to you being denied benefits.
The SSDI process takes so long at this point that not hearing much of anything for over a year is commonplace.
You should get an automated letter in the first month or two, telling you if you are ineligible for SSDI, or SSI, based on your income, assets, or work history but otherwise, it’s a long wait.
If you are initially rejected, you can file an appeal if you can identify an error they made(for example, if they made assumptions about your income or are working from old information).
Apparently, things are so backlogged that many applicants die before their case is heard. It can also take months for you to get your initial payment even after they determine your eligibility.
It’s a very challenging position and one that is likely to lead to you needing to liquidate any assets you might have(if you have any).
You likely will also need to apply for other social welfare programs to help you survive until your application goes through.
These programs are designed as safety nets, but the way that the whole process is handled doesn’t feel that way. The employees at social services often feel more like gatekeepers than helpers.
There are times you may spend hours waiting to talk to somebody or you may be talked down to by people involved in administering the systems. The officials you call for advice may not actually know all of the rules.
Like many government forms, the wording in your application or documentation can be confusing, especially if you don’t fit the assumptions the document’s creators made.
There are few worse feelings than spending hours waiting to be seen, then emerging five minutes later with a list of the documentation you need to get – so you can get back into the line again and hope that it’s right this time.
Things have improved somewhat, as now there are more often options to be interviewed by phone, rather than in person, which reduces some of the stress, but that likely varies by state and possibly by county – as well as by program.
Applying for disability requires inner strength
Making the decision to file this paperwork is an act of acceptance, and I would argue that it also is an act of bravery.
It is you making the conscious decision to admit that you need help.
It is you acknowledging your own physical, emotional, and/or mental vulnerability.
There are a lot of people out there who look down on people on government benefits, who refer to us as lazy or entitled.
We’re simply doing the best we can to take care of ourselves and our families – and sometimes that means admitting that the problem is too big for you to solve alone.
Applying for disability isn’t good for your mental health
You need to actively argue that you can’t take care of yourself.
You need to make yourself sound pathetic.
They are also unlikely to believe what you tell them unless a doctor agrees.
Writing things down on paper forces
In some cases, this means getting details on the worst experiences of your life, and possibly ending up reliving some of those worst memories.
You also may need to find a significant person in your life to confirm this by writing their own statements about your ability to live day-to-day.
It’s intimate, and best done by somebody living with you who sees you at your worst.
This means, to get disability, you not only need to relive your trauma, but you need to get somebody who is likely already helping and supporting you a lot to also report on intimate details of your life.
So why apply?
I applied because there wasn’t a better option. You likely are considering applying(or have started the process) for the same reason: it’s the best of a collection of bad options.
If you cannot work, and cannot hold a job due to a medical condition, this is the solution.
If your mental health or physical health(or the combination) are so severe that you can’t support yourself, then applying for disability is the right thing to do.
You do get support once you are on Disability
There are good things about the programs.
They do provide a regular monthly income(much better than no money coming in at all).
That first check is likely to be pretty decent sized, as it is back pay from the moment they believe your disability began.
If you are eligible for SSI, that program makes you automatically eligible for SNAP and Medicaid, as well as the monthly check.
Basically being on these programs is one of the few ways, as a person living with a disabling condition, that you can maintain
It’s the way you get the medications and treatments you need to stay alive(or have a better quality of life).
Participating in SSDI or SSI also may give you space to return to the workforce once you’ve figured out how to manage your condition.
It’s not an easy decision, but you need to make it
Look at your situation.
Can you work with what’s happening now?
If your answer is yes, can you keep working, or is it unsustainable?
Then think about your diagnosis(what you have) and prognosis(what’s likely to happen next).
If your condition is highly likely to get worse(a progressive disorder), then you want to know how quickly the changes are likely to happen.
If it’s something likely to get better(a broken bone, a treatable illness, a chronic condition that you can learn to manage), you need to have an idea of how much time you need to heal or adjust, and how much better it might get.
The rule of thumb is that if it’s been over a year, or your doctor expects it to take over a year to manage/control/adjust to it, then it’s time to consider applying for disability.
If there is a lot of uncertainty, you could start the application process and see what happens when they review it.
That does potentially give you an earlier onset of disability date, but that also means all the emotional trauma I mentioned above when you may not need to do it.
Given how cumbersome and tiring the application process can be, and how detrimental it may be to your mental/emotional health, you do want to spend some time really thinking about your work, employment, and income options before you start an application for SSDI or SSI.
Once your application is started, you also want to view getting your coverage as your job, because in all honesty, that’s what it is.
Final words of advice
If you need disability coverage, it is there for you. The programs are very narrow in their focus, only covering people who are “too disabled” to earn “substantial” income.
The application process takes a long time. SSI is often a bit faster than SSDI, but still takes a minimum of months, and you would have less financial support at the end.
The process of applying is painful, but there are things you can do to help yourself mitigate the emotional harm when you apply.
You deserve to have the best coverage you can get, but the cost of admission to the disability support programs is much higher than most people realize.
If you do decide to apply and would like support in doing so, I offer a coaching program specifically designed to help you through the process.