As with any physical or mental impairment, an applicant with impaired vision who applies for federal disability benefits (Social Security disability or SSI) may be approved on the basis of meeting one of Social Security's disability listings or may be approved on the basis of a medical-vocational allowance.
Social Security's disability listings book provides the specific approval criteria for a number of known impairments. Not every medical condition is addressed in the listing book (also known as the blue book), and not every condition for which approval criteria is set forth in the listing book is specifically identified by name.
In the case of vision impairments, there aren't separate listings that specifically address conditions such as macular degeneration, diabetic retinopathy, or cataracts. Instead, the listing book focuses on the measurable loss of visual ability that may result from any number of medical conditions.
To qualify for Social Security disability or SSI on the basis of a vision impairment, there are three listings in the Social Security Administration's impairment listing manual that may generally apply to most claims involving loss of vision. These listings deal with:
- Remaining visual acuity in the better eye (see our article on disability for central vision loss)
- The level of peripheral field contraction in the better eye (see our article on disability for peripheral vision loss), and
- Loss of visual efficiency in the better eye (this is a combination of visual acuity and peripheral vision).
What does "in the better eye" mean? For a disability claim involving a visual problem, the Social Security Administration will evaluate a claimant's medical records and consider the claimant's residual (remaining) visual acuity and peripheral vision in both eyes. If one of the claimant's eyes meets the approval requirements of a listing and the other eye does not (this would be the better eye), the claimant will not be approved on the basis of meeting a listing.
For example, listing 2.02 (this is the listing regarding central visual acuity and this is also the listing under which most vision impairment claims will receive consideration) states that, for an individual to be approved on the basis of this listing, the remaining vision in the better eye, after best correction, must be 20/200 or worse.
Translation: if a disability claimant's vision in both eyes, after glasses or contacts are worn (i.e., best correction), is still worse than 20/200, the claimant will qualify for disability under listing 2.02. However, if the vision in just one eye is this bad, and the vision in the other eye is even just slightly better, the claimant will not be approved for benefits under this listing.
When a claimant cannot be approved on the basis of meeting one of the official vision impairment listings, this does not mean that they cannot be approved for disability benefits. Instead it means that for an approval to be made, it must come in the form of a medical-vocational allowance. A medical-vocational allowance takes into account your functional limitations (such as not being able to drive), your age, your job skills, and your education level. For more information, read our article about how you can get a medical-vocational allowance for poor eyesight.