Can I Get Disability for Poor Eyesight?

To qualify for Social Security disability benefits, you generally need to have poor eyesight in both eyes, even while wearing glasses or contacts.

Updated by , Attorney · UC Law San Francisco

Here are three answers to readers' questions that demonstrate how the Social Security Administration (SSA) evaluates various types of vision problems.

Question: Can I Get Disability for Having 20/800 Vision?

I'm 23 years old and I've had to go through the Lions Club to get glasses since the second grade. My vision has progressively gotten worse over the years and the last time I asked my doctor what my eyesight was, his response was 20/800. I've heard I'm considered partially blind. Would I qualify for disability? How would I go about filling out the paperwork?

Answer: Disability Depends on Your Eyesight With Glasses

A score of 20/800 on the Snellen eyesight chart is very poor. But I'm guessing that, when your doctor told you had 20/800 vision, he was talking about your vision without glasses. To the Social Security Administration (SSA), it really doesn't matter what your vision is without glasses (or contacts). For disability purposes, what matters is what your vision is while wearing glasses. Here's why: You could have 20/800 vision without glasses (which is very low vision), but 20/40 vision with glasses. You would not have a disability.

The real question is, what is your vision while wearing glasses or contacts? If your eyesight, in both eyes, is 20/800 while wearing glasses or contacts (with a proper prescription), you would be automatically considered legally blind and could be eligible for Social Security disability (depending on whether you worked and paid Social Security taxes) or Supplemental Security Income (depending on your income). In fact, if your eyesight 20/200 or worse while wearing glasses, you qualify as legally blind and Social Security considers you disabled. 20/200 vision is far from total blindness, which is when there is no light perception in both eyes.

But note that Social Security assesses vision problems by looking at your vision in your better (stronger) eye. If the vision in your better eye is worse than 20/200 with glasses, you are considered disabled. But if one eye has 20/800 vision and the other eye has 20/100 vision, for example, you would not automatically qualify for disability benefits.

You can apply for benefits by going online to www.ssa.gov/applyfordisability (for SSDI) or www.ssa.gov/ssi (for SSI). Or you can apply for Social Security disability in person at your local SSA office by calling Social Security at 800-772-1213 to set up an appointment. (If you're hard of hearing, you can call the TTY number at 800-325-0778.

For more information, see our article on disability benefits for partial or total blindness.

Question: Disability Benefits for Loss of Sight in One Eye?

If I lose eyesight in one eye, would that qualify me for disability? I have recently lost vision because of an eye infection, and the doctor thinks it may be permanent.

Answer: Disability Requires Poor Eyesight in Both Eyes

You wouldn't automatically qualify for disability if you only lose vision in one eye. Social Security's listing for blindness requires you to have worse than 20/200 vision in your better eye. So as long as you have reasonably good vision in one of your eyes, you won't automatically qualify under the listing for blindness.

Losing eyesight in one eye, however, could prevent you from doing your past job if it was work that required binocular vision or depth perception, such as operating hazardous machinery, working at "unprotected heights," or even driving. In that case, you might be able to get disability benefits through a "medical-vocational allowance" for reduced vision, based on what you can and can't do.

During the application process, you'll submit a function report where you can detail how your limited vision makes it unsafe or impossible to do your prior work. The SSA will review it, along with treatment notes from your doctor, to determine what your visual limitations are. If the SSA agrees you can't do your past work because of your poor eyesight, the agency will name other work that you can do despite your limitations.

But it's easier to get a medical-vocational allowance if you are older: If you are older than 50, 55, or 60, in some cases Social Security's grid rules require Social Security to automatically find you disabled if the agency agrees you can't do your past job because of limitations.

You may want to consult with a disability attorney or advocate about getting disability benefits based on a medical-vocational allowance for eyesight problems, because SSDI and SSI benefits aren't easy to get for vision problems that don't meet the standard for statutory blindness. Especially if you're initially denied benefits, it makes sense to hire an attorney with experience with partial blindness cases.

Question: Can I Get Disability Benefits for Low Vision?

I was born with very low vision in my right eye due to a problem with the development of my optic nerve. My visual acuity is 20/400 without glasses and 20/200 with glasses. I get double vision and blurred vision from time to time. Can I get disability benefits?

Answer: Disability Can Depend on Your Functional Limitations

"Low vision" is a visual impairment that's often seen on Social Security disability and SSI disability applications. Low vision, also called partial sight or limited sight, is an impaired level of visual functioning that can't be completely corrected by wearing conventional glasses or contacts or having eye surgery.

Low vision can be congenital, resulting from problems with the optic nerve, or can result from glaucoma and macular degeneration, which affects nearly two million Americans who are older than the age of 40. (Macular degeneration is the leading cause of blindness for those over 65.)

How does the Social Security Administration (SSA) evaluate low vision? The SSA doesn't have a disability listing specifically for low vision, but the agency does have several listings for vision loss or blindness. The listings cover loss of central visual acuity, loss of visual efficiency, and loss of peripheral vision. The listings, however, require low vision in both eyes. If the vision in both of your eyes is only 20/200 with glasses, you will be considered legally blind and will qualify for disability benefits. But if the vision in your left eye is better than 20/220, you won't automatically qualify for disability benefits through the vision loss listing.

But if you have general problems with your vision that cause you to be limited in certain activities, or you have doctor restrictions based on your low vision, you might be able to qualify for disability benefits based on a "medical-vocational allowance." For instance, you mentioned blurred vision and double vision. If your doctor has advised you not to drive or work on dangerous machinery, that limits the types of jobs you can do. And if you can't do fine detail close-up work because of blurred or double vision on some days, that rules out even more jobs. If you're older than 50 and your functional limitations rule out enough types of work, you might be found disabled.

For the full information on how Social Security evaluates vision loss, see our article on Social Security disability and partial or total blindness.

Updated September 5, 2023

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