The honest answer is that there are a lot of possible meanings.
The most typical at this point is to receive Social Security Disability Insurance benefits(SSDI) or Supplemental Security Insurance(SSI), but there really are a lot of additional types of ‘disability’ benefits, each of which has its own set of rules, regulations, and durations.
This post is intended to be an overview so that you understand what your options may be.
To be clear, this is the US system, as many other countries have very different rules and expectations.
Disability provided by employer
While hourly employees may not have this(but it doesn’t hurt to check) many salaried employees are given a variety of coverages and protections. The exact details are likely to vary, but there are a few options to check.
Many employers will offer some form of health insurance, which covers your diagnosis and treatment.
In many cases, there’s also a disability coverage, where you will be provided some degree of reimbursement should you become disabled.
In some cases, the focus is specifically on if you become disabled while working(such as a workplace accident, which is generally covered under worker’s compensation), but others are more generous and may offer months to years of coverage should you become unable to work due to any disabling condition.
It’s well worth reading over if you are employed and uncertain about your health. Also, if you are injured while employed, make sure that you or a family member do a deep dive into the information so you get the most help you can.
The coverage information should be available either in your welcome package, on your employer’s website, or as insurance information your employer provides.
Often this coverage works for both short-term and long-term disability concerns, but there may be specific paperwork you need to file, or you may need to share particular details with your supervisor relatively early in your disability process. It may be a worthwhile read, and has the potential to help you keep your job or to extend the time that you have employee protections.
In many cases, the long-term disability programs, should you need them, will eventually encourage you to apply for SSDI.
The big positive with being on this type of program is that they will pay you throughout the application process(which can take years) and then once you do receive SSDI, they will supplement those payments so you continue to receive that same amount of income if your SSDI coverage is lower. This is the ideal way to apply for SSDI.
Government programs that protect employees
There is a program called the Family Medical Leave Act(FMLA), which is designed to allow people managing disabling conditions(or who has a family member who needs additional support) to take time off of work to recover or find a solution.
As an example, my father used the FMLA to take four mornings a week off of work for over a year in order to take my sister to medical appointments after her brain injury. He used sick leave he had accumulated but was able to build that time off into his schedule with no negative repercussions because of the act.
If you are working and disabled, you may be able to use the FMLA to protect your job while you do the necessary medical appointments or treatments or to temporarily work part time(or take extended time off) while going through the diagnosis and treatment process(or if you experience a flare in symptoms).
If you have a parent, partner, or child who needs an intensive intervention, you also may be able to use the FMLA to help protect your job while you help them.
You also should be able to request appropriate accomodations for your disability at work. You are protected by the ADA(Americans with Disabilities Act) and can request reasonable accommodations.
You often will need a doctor to write out the requests and justify them, but it is possible to do it. To be clear, the ADA is a set of laws, not an organization or government department. However, the ADA homepage should help you find the particular resources or information you need.
I am not an expert on employment-associated accommodations, so if you are in a position of needing them, I recommend that you also check out Managing Chronic, a blog focused on protecting your rights with an employer when disabled.
State Temporary Disability Program
Some states also have a temporary disability program. New York, New Jersey, California, Rhode Island and Hawaii all have this program, as does the territory of Puerto Rico. These programs only provide assistance if your injury or condition is not work-related.
They can pay up to 60% of your income.
Generally, you need to have worked for a while before becoming eligible – depending on the state, that ranges from 30 days to 6 months.
All of these programs have a one-week waiting period as well(you aren’t eligible until you have been unable to work for at least 8 days).
This can be used by pregnant women as well if needed.
The other important requirement is medical proof: you need to submit medical records or undergo an exam.
Each state’s rules are a little different, so follow the links for your state’s program if you think you may be eligible.
Even if you don’t live in one of these states, it may be worthwhile to look for additional supports for temporarily disabled workers. The state of Maryland, for example, has Temporary Disability Assistance Program, which offers cash, housing, and medical assistance.
Al used this program after he broke his acetabulum. He had just started work at a new job, but since he had been there for six weeks, he was eligible for the short-term disability coverage that New Jersey provides.
Unfortunately, he was not eligible for the FMLA protections because in his case that required six months of employment. The job kept his position open for almost half a year anyway, but eventually, he did lose that position because he was not physically able to resume those responsibilities.
Long-term or Permanant Disability coverage
There are two federal programs that support people with disabilities. Those are the two mentioned in the beginning, Supplemental Security Income(SSI) and Social Security Disability Insurance(SSDI). These programs are for people who are unable to work for at least 12 months.
The actual application is the same for both SSI and SSDI, and once you apply, they determine if you are eligible for SSDI.
If you aren’t SSDI-eligible, they run an asset check to see if you are eligible for SSI. You will get a notification of rejection for one program or the other relatively quickly, but then it can be a very long wait for more information.
SSDI is specifically designed for workers who become disabled. This program is effectively getting your social security coverage before reaching the age of 65.
I am covered by this program, as are many other disabled folks. SSDI eligibility is determined by the combination of your financial eligibility(having earned enough work credits to qualify, and your earned income over the previous 10 years) and your proven medical inability to work.
Once granted SSDI, you get a monthly payment and are eligible for Medicare about two years after the determined onset of your disability.
It is vital to have good medical records, and doctors willing and able to document how and why your condition prevents you from working.
If anything suggests that you could successfully work a different type of job or otherwise continue to earn income to support yourself, you are likely to have your application rejected.
The application process for SSDI and SSI can take years, and many applicants are rejected. You can appeal up to twice, and after the second appeal, the case is heard by a judge.
The most important thing in this process is to keep seeing the appropriate doctors and making sure that they are keeping records of your symptoms, treatment, and diagnoses.
The Supplemental Security Income(SSI) program is for people who do not have the necessary work history to be eligible for SSDI, but who are medically recognized as disabled. This includes covering disabled children in low-income families and disabled adults without sufficient work histories. If determined SSI-eligible, you are immediately also eligible for Medicaid and SNAP benefits.
SSI payments are need-based, so you are only eligible if your income and assets are low enough(under $2,000 of assets).
Many people will wait years for a determination, and if you work during that time, it’s viewed as an indicator that you may not be disabled.
The waiting period can be very rough, but if you do get onto one of these programs, you do have some income and health insurance, and proof of eligibility for additional resources.
Conclusion: Getting on disability has many definitions, and now you know the most common ones
If you are a salaried full-time employee, your employer is likely to have you covered. Check your insurance information if you are injured or become ill(or look it over beforehand to help you prepare for that possibility) to understand what coverage you have and what steps you need to take to use it.
Generally, there is worker’s compensation programs of some sort, if you are injured while working. This often covers any employees, including part-time or hourly employees. In many cases, worker’s compensation covers both short-term and long-term disability.
If you aren’t injured at work, there usually is some coverage for that as well, which includes medical coverage in the form of your health insurance, and often some additional disability coverage from your employer.
The Family Medical Leave Act(FMLA) can also provide some protections if you have been with your employer for long enough to be eligible, and it expands your ability to take time off from work for either your own medical care or healing, or the medical care of a family member in some form of crisis.
Also, the Americans with Disabilities Act provides protections for you as a disabled employee and allows you to demand appropriate accomodations from your employer.
If you have specific symptoms that make working challenging, or if your employer has rules that make working more difficult, you may be able to make appropriate requests with your doctor’s assistance to get allowances or accommodations made so that you can continue to work.
Certain states have short term disability programs, which help compensate temporarily disabled workers whose conditions are unrelated to work. If your state is one of those, that is another potential source of support – and if it isn’t, do some digging, because some additional states offer resources to people in that position.
If you are going to be unable to work for 12 month or more, it’s time to apply for SSI or SSDI. These programs are federal support programs for individuals with long-term or permanant disabilities. There is only one form, and the process can take years, so be prepared for that struggle.