What constitutes a disability? For Social Security disability or SSI purposes, to be considered disabled, individuals must have an impairment, either medical, psychological, or psychiatric in nature, that keeps them from being able to do a substantial amount of work. In addition, a person's impairment must have prevented the individual from doing a substantial amount of work for at least 12 months, or be expected to prevent work for at least 12 months. (This durational requirement means that while severe back conditions can qualify for Social Security disability or SSI, wrist or ankle sprains or broken bones seldom qualify as disabling conditions.)
In order to decide whether you're disabled, the Social Security Administration (SSA) uses a series of five steps the agency calls the Sequential Evaluation Process. At each step, you'll have to meet certain criteria that the SSA will use to determine whether you're disabled. Most people need to go through all five steps before they're awarded benefits.
A disability application signals to the SSA that you don't think you can work, so at the first step, the agency will want to see that you aren't currently working. For Social Security purposes, this means performing substantial gainful activity (SGA). SGA is an earnings threshold of $1,470 per month (for 2023). If you make more than that—even if you're only working 10 hours a month—Social Security will deny your claim.
If you're self-employed, whether you own a business or do contract work, figuring out if you meet the $1,470 cut-off is a little more complicated, but the result is the same—earning too much will disqualify you for disability benefits.
Social Security will deny you before they even look at your medical records (referred to as a "technical denial") if the agency determines that you're earning above the SGA limit. But if you're earning below the SGA level, you can continue to work part-time without putting your disability application at risk.
Once Social Security determines that you're not currently working above the SGA threshold, the agency will begin to review your medical records to see what's preventing you from working and why. Your records should be up to date, meaning that you should include all doctors' notes, lab tests, or medical imaging from the last 60 to 90 days.
When you file an application for disability benefits, one of the first questions the SSA asks is for you to list the disorders, conditions, or illnesses that are preventing you from working. (This is the "why" you're disabled.) Conditions that you haven't recovered from after 12 months and have significantly interrupted your daily routine are called "severe impairments" by the SSA.
Not all severe impairments are disabling. Social Security will look for more information about the physical and mental symptoms of your impairments to see if you are disabled "medically" or "vocationally."
In some cases, Social Security can tell from your medical records that your condition is so severe that it meets the requirements of a listed impairment ("medical disability") and you'll be automatically approved for benefits.
The requirements for medical disability are hard to prove, however. Most people who qualify for benefits were found disabled because the SSA determined no jobs exist that they can do with their residual functional capacity ("vocational disability").
Your residual functional capacity (RFC) is the most you're capable of doing in a work environment despite your limitations. If you have physical impairments, Social Security will decide whether you can do medium, light, or sedentary work by looking at the functional limitations in your medical records. Physical RFCs will include limitations like "unable to walk for more than 2 hours" or "restricted from lifting more than 20 pounds."
For mental impairments, the agency will decide whether you're capable of understanding and remembering instructions, maintaining concentration and focus, and interacting appropriately with other people. Mental RFCs will include limitations on whether you can perform semi-skilled work, unskilled work, or less than unskilled work.
Social Security will look at the physical and mental demands of every job you've had in the past 15 years and use your RFC assessment to decide whether you could perform your past work today. If your past work is within the limitations of your RFC, the agency will deny your claim.
If the SSA thinks that you can't return to your past work, the agency will then need to decide if you can do other jobs, depending on your age, education, and experience.
For disability applicants over the age of 50, Social Security will use a set of rules called the medical-vocational grid. The grid rules help Social Security determine if applicants can use any skills they might have learned at their past work to do a less demanding job. The agency can find you disabled under the grid if you could physically perform an easier job but you don't know how to do it (and can't learn).
For disability applicants under the age of 50, to be found disabled, you'll need to show the SSA that you can't do even the easiest, least stressful jobs. In Social Security lingo, these jobs are called sedentary, unskilled work.
Here's an example to help you visualize how the SSA views the difference between the two age categories. A 45-year-old car mechanic might be expected to switch to working a less physically demanding job doing auto body repair, if the job duties are similar enough. But if the mechanic is 55 and has only worked on motorcycles, the grid rules may not consider those job duties to be similar enough to the duties required for auto repair, and will consider the person disabled.
For information on what medical conditions are considered disabilities under both the listings and when considering RFCs, see our section on disabling medical conditions and impairments.
Updated January 4, 2023