Glaucoma is the medical term for a group of eye conditions that can result in blindness by damaging the optic nerve, which connects the eye to the brain. Glaucoma can be primary if it's not caused by another condition, or secondary if it is. In the United States, the most common type (occurring in 9 out of 10 people with glaucoma) is open-angle glaucoma, which doctors think is caused by fluid buildup in the eye putting pressure on the optic nerve.
Because glaucoma doesn't usually present with symptoms, most people don't know they have the condition until they've been diagnosed after an eye exam. When caught early, medical interventions such as eye drops or surgery can slow or stop the progression of glaucoma. But if left untreated, glaucoma can lead to irreversible damage to the optic nerve.
The Social Security Administration (SSA) recognizes that once your vision has declined past a certain point, many jobs become difficult, if not impossible, to perform. When people apply for disability benefits based on glaucoma, they likely have lost a significant amount of peripheral (side) vision, and sometimes their central vision as well. Even with corrective lenses, they might not be able to see well enough to work, and can qualify for disability.
If your glaucoma is severe enough to keep you from working for at least twelve months, the SSA might find you disabled in one of two ways:
You'll need to have vision tests conducted in order to diagnose glaucoma and determine how poor your vision is. For example, visual field tests evaluate how wide of an area you can see by having you respond to certain lights or shapes in the center and sides of your eyes. Snellen methodology—the familiar eye chart with a large E on the top—is frequently used to measure your visual acuity (how well you can see straight ahead).
If the results of your vision tests fall within certain parameters indicating very significant glaucoma, you might qualify for benefits automatically (what Social Security calls meeting a listed impairment).
The SSA has three listings for vision loss, whether caused by glaucoma or another condition:
Central visual acuity means how well you can see looking at something straight ahead while wearing corrective lenses such as glasses or contacts. Contraction of visual fields means that your range of vision—the amount you can see on the sides—is reduced. Loss of visual efficiency is a combination of having poor central acuity and a narrow field of vision. For more information, see our article on disability standards for vision loss.
Many people with glaucoma don't have the severely restricted vision necessary to meet the listing requirements. But you can still qualify for disability benefits if you can show that your poor vision prevents you from returning to your past work and keeps you from working all other jobs.
Social Security determines whether you can work by first assessing your residual functional capacity (RFC). Your RFC is a set of limitations on what activities you can safely perform in a work environment. For example, somebody with glaucoma or other visual impairments might have an RFC containing the following restrictions:
The SSA doesn't usually award benefits based on an RFC with only visual restrictions, because jobs exist in significant numbers that don't involve exposure to the above hazards. But if you have additional physical or mental limitations due to other medical conditions, your RFC can rule out all work, and the agency can find you disabled.
Depending on how poor your vision is, you might be considered legally blind. If you're legally blind and awarded Social Security disability benefits, you might be eligible for a higher payment from your state for Supplemental Security Income (SSI). Additionally, you're allowed to earn up to $2,460 per month before your income is considered substantial gainful activity (as opposed to the $1,470 limit for nonblind disabled workers).
For more information, see our article on filing for disability for partial or total blindness.
Social Security provides several methods you can use to apply for disability benefits:
The disability determination process can be lengthy and often frustrating. Consider getting help from an experienced disability attorney or advocate. Your lawyer can help gather evidence needed to document your glaucoma, handle communication with the SSA, and represent you at a disability hearing.
Updated January 23, 2023