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SSDI stands for Social Security Disability Insurance(It is also sometimes shortened to SSD), which is one of two programs to support people who are too disabled to work.

SSDI is specifically for people who have enough of a work history that they would be eligible for social security benefits when they retire.

This program is run by the Social Security Administration(SSA) and provides both a monthly payment and eligibility for Medicare for its recipients.

The other major support program, Supplemental Security Income(SSI) is a needs-based support program for people whose disabilities prevent them from working.

It is possible for somebody to be eligible for both programs, but they need to get their SSDI benefits first, then make a minor supplemental application.

SSI is primarily for people without a recent work history, or who haven’t earned enough work credits.

What is Social Security Disability Insurance?

SSDI is a program for people who are long-term disabled(not anticipated to be able to work for over a year, or who haven’t been able to work for over a year), and who have a long(and recent) enough work history to be eligible for social security benefits when they reach retirement age.  

SSDI benefits vary based upon your work and income history(generally in the range $700-$3000).  There are no absolute limits on assets, but there are limits around earned income.  People earn, on average, around $1200/month.

The application process is the same as SSI.

Generally, the assumption is that if you are applying for SSDI you are currently unemployed and unable to work.

The rule of thumb for eligibility for SSDI is if you are unable to work for over a year or if your doctor predicts you will be unable to work for over a year, you may be eligible for SSDI.

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Substantial Gainful Activity

SSDI has an amount of income that the program has decided is significant enough to suggest you need benefits.

I refer to this as a “magic number”, since the relationship it has to your ability to work is difficult to understand, and your income must remain below this number to maintain eligibility.

If your income is under this magic number, you are eligible, but if you’re over the number, things get really difficult, really quickly. This magic number is referred to as SGA(substantial gainful activity).

The SGA does change a little most years, always increasing slightly. In 2023, SGA for non-blind individuals was $1470.  

Blind people do have a significantly higher SGA than all other disabilities. Their SGA in 2023 was $2460.

Check here for historical SGA values.

If you are working and your disability causes you to reduce hours and responsibilities so your monthly paid income is under SGA, you may be eligible for SSDI.

What are my odds for getting SSDI?

When I applied in 2003, there were nearly 1.9 million applicants.  I applied in early March and was granted SSDI(social security disability insurance) in the fall. The months of waiting were a bit stressful, but I had help and support from my family and had a little bit of a financial cushion.  

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While it is not a lottery, sometimes the process feels that way

Since then, the number of applicants has increased(2.9 million was the peak in 2010). In 2017, 2,179,928 applied for disability.

When I applied, 41% of applicants were awarded SSDI payments, which left over half of the applicant’s claims rejected -though some likely had their application sent to SSI.

In 2020(the most recent data available), only 34.2% of applicants are awarded benefits, and that number has been lower in recent years. The process also takes much much longer.

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The most important thing: your condition(s)

When you apply for SSDI, the most important part is an explanation of how and why your condition(s) leaves you unable to work.

You do not need to have a specific diagnosis to be eligible for SSDI. In fact, you don’t have to have a full diagnosis at all!

You do, however, need to be able to describe your symptoms and have your doctor(s) support your claims.

Social Security needs to understand that you are under the care of one or more doctors, getting treatment, and actively working to manage and/or recover from your condition.

The diagnosis matters much much less than the way that your condition(s) affect(s) you and how you function.

For example, I have a history of depression. My depression is well-managed with active self-care and medication. I am regularly seeing a therapist.

My depression doesn’t prevent me from working. If I had applied for disability solely due to my depression, I would not have received it.

It’s still possible for somebody to be on SSDI or SSI due to depression or a related disorder.

If, due to their condition, they are unable to reliably take care of themselves, they have multiple hospitalizations or institutionalizations, and/or their condition seems unresponsive to all the medications tried on them – they may be eligible for disability coverage for their depression.

I am on SSDI due primarily to my Functional Neurological Disorder(FND) symptoms, while my history with depression is an additional stress that makes managing my FND more complicated.

One of the major factors for disability is that the patient is receiving ongoing documented care.

If you stop seeing doctors because of finances or medical trauma, you’ll likely find your application rejected.

This means that if you apply for SSDI, the most important thing is for you to keep seeing doctors and maintaining your treatment.

You cannot afford NOT to keep seeing medical professionals.

Not seeing them pretty much guarantees that your application for disability will be rejected. Also, if you don’t see the correct doctors, your likelihood of getting disability drops dramatically.

You need to see not only your Primary Care Physician, but also the appropriate specialists.

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Date of Onset of Disability

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Sometimes, it’s hard to pin down when you went from ‘challenged’ to ‘disabled’

An important term during the application process is “date of onset” of disability. This is when your disability is considered to have begun.

In some cases, this onset date is glaringly obvious. If you were in any form of serious accident, your disability began on the day of the accident. That’s nice, simple, cut, and dried.

If, however, you developed a chronic condition that slowly got worse, or you are trying to manage multiple conditions that eventually become too much to manage when combined, this date can be much more challenging to figure out.

Why is it important? It’s used to determine when you are eligible for your Medicare coverage and how much back pay you may be awarded if you are able to use the SSDI program.

Medicare coverage begins 24 months after the onset of disability. This means that if it takes you two years to get your SSDI coverage, your Medicare will likely start within a month or so of your being granted SSDI.

When you apply, do your best to document how long before your application your disability started.

The earlier you can prove your disability or inability to work due to disability started, the more backpay you should get when the determination is made. Again, anything you can document may be helpful.

Often, things like the date of termination from a job may be used as onset of disability dates, if that’s when you became financially eligible.

Think about what your final straw was, and how that led to your decision to apply to SSDI.

Being “disabled enough”

SSDI and SSI are supports for people with disabilities. However, they aren’t actually for all people with disabilities.

They are there, specifically, for people whose disabilities prevent them from working enough to earn SGA.

To get this coverage, you not only need to prove that you have a disability(which would be relatively simple), but that your disability prevents you from doing any kind of work that earns “substantial” income.

It’s much easier to prove a positive(I can work, here’s my employment record) than it is to prove a negative(I’m unfit to do ANY job due to my disability).

Making these calculations takes time and effort, and when the number of applicants increases dramatically after an economically challenging year, and there’s no increase in staff or funding, the process is going to get bogged down.

I believe that is what’s been happening since the 2008 recession.

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It’s vital that you and your doctor(s) are on the same page

Applying for disability is tough for an applicant because you need to prove the negative(your unemployability), and focus on your limitations and failures.

If the person who reads your information disagrees, then you’re going to get rejected and need to appeal.

This is why it’s so important to have your doctor(s) behind you.

Knowing that you are applying for disability, they may make certain to note information that helps convince the folks at SSDI, or they may make sure to attach notations about your pain or limits that may otherwise be forgotten.

Just bear in mind, each step of the way, that you not only need to have a disability, but also prove that it’s “disabling enough” to keep you from working.

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What happens after you apply?

After you apply, they check to see which program, if any, you are eligible for.

If you have earned the work credits needed, your application continues to the Social Security Administration, where they determine if you are “disabled enough”.

I had been a full-time student most of my time prior to disability, but I had held jobs over summer vacations and part-time jobs on campus in college(and after school near the end of my high school career), so I believe I earned my full allotment of work credits each year.

Somehow my monthly check is higher than average.

They do focus on the previous 10 years of your life and not on things before that, so if you do stop working due to your condition, you likely want to apply for SSDI within a year or two of when you stop working.

Within the first few weeks of doing an online application, you will receive either more paperwork(recognizing that you have the work history for SSDI), or a letter stating that you are ineligible for SSDI and why.

If you are not eligible for SSDI, they check your eligibility for SSI. This is referred to as a “means test”, and is basically them looking over your financials to see if you are poor enough to be eligible for SSI coverage.

The paperwork is the rest of your application for SSDI. While most are for you to fill out, there is one packet that you need to give to somebody who knows you well(preferably who lives with you) so they can report on your limitations.

After that paperwork goes in, you wait.

small dog lying on floor looking sad
Waiting can be one of the most difficult things to do

Often this waiting period is over a year.

While you wait, you shouldn’t work or do something that could be equated to work(like being a full-time student).

Eventually, you will receive a letter from Social Security.

If they have determined that you are disabled enough, the letter tells you that, what your benefit amount(monthly check) is, and when your Medicare coverage begins.

I was one of the lucky few who was determined disabled at the first application. I got my notification five or six months after I had applied, which was surprisingly quick then, and is now basically unheard of.

There is an appeals process that you can go through if you receive a rejection. The reason for the rejection will be listed.

It’s your job to appeal that decision(they give instructions how in the letter), and then send them additional information(preferably medical records) that will (hopefully) convince them that you are indeed “disabled enough”.

You can have up to two rounds of appeals, and if you are still rejected, you have a hearing in court.

This is when a lawyer would be most useful(and really they aren’t necessary unless you get to this point).

When they give you a hearing date(likely a year or more out), you can work with a lawyer to create the best possible case to prove to the judge that you can’t work.

It’s at this point that things like symptom trackers and pain diaries may be most useful. If you do hire a lawyer, you shouldn’t need to pay them.

These cases work in a similar way to accident and injury cases – you hire the lawyer who represents you, and the lawyer only gets paid if you win your case.

With disability applications, they cannot be paid more than $7,200 from your first check – which contains back pay from the determined onset of your disability to the month the determination was made.

Generally, the rule is 25% of your back pay, but they cannot be paid more than $7,200 without a waiver from Social Security, which is only granted under exceptional circumstances.

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SSDI – final thoughts

I want to close this by reminding you that SSDI is currently the most supportive program for people with disabilities in the United States, but that doesn’t mean that it is by any means ideal.

SSDI provides income, insurance, and some incentives to work while you learn to live with and manage your disabling condition, and really get to know its long-term effects.

You can remain on SSDI until you roll over to regular social security coverage unless you are able to return to work and earn over SGA or are otherwise found to no longer be disabled.

This is what we have, and it is far from ideal. However, it’s also a lot better than the nothing you would likely get otherwise.

If you do apply for SSDI, I wish you the best of luck in filing your claim!

I offer coaching support if you want to apply for disability but need some 1:1 supportive care through the process.

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    1. I hate the whole ‘not disabled enough’ BS. There’s also that if you are disabled enough and start earning a reasonable amount of money, you lose the benefits, which brings on a whole new set of stress. I’m hoping that we can eventually make some sweeping changes, but at this point we need to live with what is. And at least SSDI benefits are reliable and helpful once found eligible!

    1. Thanks Sheryl! I try to make them more interesting by adding in my own experiences – and it is so deeply important for people to really understand their needs and options.

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