If you're partially blind, legally blind, or totally blind, you may be able to qualify for Social Security disability benefits through the Social Security Administration (SSA). Social Security has rules about how significant your vision loss must be for it to qualify as a disability. Your vision must be quite poor with glasses or contacts on, and if you have good vision in one eye, you may not qualify for disability benefits.
Age-related macular degeneration, cataracts, glaucoma, and diabetes (and diabetic retinopathy) are the most common causes of vision loss. Retinal detachment and retinal disease (retinopathy) caused by high blood pressure, lupus, melanoma, or other types of cancer can also lead to a loss in visual acuity.
There are two ways Social Security can approve you for Social Security disability benefits: based on looking at the medical evidence alone and based on looking at medical and vocational (job) evidence.
To evaluate claims based on the medical evidence alone, Social Security has three "listings" in its impairment manual that apply to claims involving loss of vision. These listings deal with the remaining amount of visual acuity and peripheral vision.
If your vision loss doesn't meet one of Social Security's listings, you still might be able to get disability benefits based on a "medical-vocational allowance." This requires you to show that there are really no jobs you can do safely because of your vision loss, taking into account your prior job experience, your age, and your education.
Social Security's "blue book" of impairment listings states the requirements to be automatically approved for disability benefits for vision loss. Most claims for low vision are approved under the listing for central visual acuity (if they are approved at all).
Central visual acuity is how clearly you can see straight ahead. To meet the requirements for Social Security's listing for loss of visual acuity (listing 2.02), the vision in your better eye, when you're wearing glasses or contacts, must be 20/200 or worse.
This is the standard for what's called legal blindness, or "statutory blindness," even though it's technically only partial blindness. Total blindness (the absence of light perception in both eyes) qualifies automatically for disability benefits.
Note that if you have one eye with vision worse than 20/200 and one eye with better vision than 20/200 (with glasses or contacts), you won't qualify under this listing (more on this below).
Your vision may be okay looking straight ahead, but you might have a loss of your "visual field" (the total space you can see including your peripheral vision). Many jobs require you to have good peripheral vision, so Social Security has a listing for "contraction of the visual field" (listing 2.03). If your total visual field falls below a certain level, in the better eye, Social Security will find you disabled.
For the details, see our article on getting disability for peripheral vision problems.
If you have poor peripheral vision in addition to poor visual acuity, you might be able to qualify under Social Security's listing for loss of "visual efficiency" (listing 2.04). The listing requires you to have a low "percentage of visual efficiency," a calculation that combines your central visual acuity and peripheral vision.
If you don't qualify for disability benefits under Social Security's listings for poor visual acuity or peripheral vision, you'll move to the next part of the disability determination process. Social Security will consider the effect of your vision loss (and any other symptoms) on your ability to perform daily activities and work functions.
To decide whether your vision impairment prevents you from working, Social Security will give you a residual functional capacity (RFC) rating. Your RFC will list the type of work Social Security thinks you can do based on your restrictions. If your best-corrected vision is 20/50 or worse in your better eye, your RFC should include specific restrictions on the types of work you can't do because of your poor vision. For people with decreased vision, your RFC might include:
If you have a detached retina or are at risk of a detached retina, your doctor may also give you a restriction on heavy lifting.
For more information, see our article on how Social Security uses your RFC to decide whether there are jobs you can do.
Social Security requires you to have a physical examination by an ophthalmologist or optometrist to measure your visual acuity. This is the exam you get when you get a new prescription for glasses or contacts. You'll be asked to read letters from a chart at a certain distance away (a "Snellen" chart).
If you won't qualify for disability under poor visual acuity alone, you'll also need to get peripheral vision tested. All testing is done without your glasses or contacts—your doctor will use lenses that are part of the testing equipment to come up with your "best corrected" vision.
If Social Security suspects your vision is better than you say, Social Security may require you to undergo "visual evoked response testing." This test measures brainwave responses to visual stimuli that the doctor shows you. Social Security might request this type of testing if, for instance, your eyes show no abnormalities during an examination and you have no history of neurological damage, yet you scored 20/200 on your Snellen chart test
Also, if your doctor has diagnosed you with an eye disease, your medical record should reflect the diagnosis and the treatment you've received for it.
Social Security has several rules that apply to legally or totally blind applicants but don't apply to nonblind applicants. For instance:
These are called blind work expenses (BWE), a type of impairment-related work expense.
You can apply for Social Security disability in person at your local SSA office, by calling Social Security at 800-772-1213, or online at www.ssa.gov/applyfordisability.
To complete the disability application, you'll need detailed information, including the contact information and dates of treatment for all of your medical providers, the dates of any medical tests, and the names, addresses, and dates of employment for all of your employers in the last 15 years. For more information, see our article on applying for Social Security disability benefits.
Once your application is complete, Social Security will send your file to your state's Disability Determination Services (DDS) office. Here, a claims examiner will request and review your medical records and review them. The examiner might call you for an interview or send you additional paperwork to complete. After the claims examiner feels that your file has sufficient evidence to make a decision, a medical consultant (doctor or optometrist) will decide whether you are legally blind.
Social Security will notify you of the decision by mail. This normally takes three to four months, but could take longer.
If you receive a denial letter and your vision has worsened, or you think your case is strong enough to win an appeal, think about contacting a disability lawyer. About half of people who go to an appeal hearing win their claims, and applicants who go to a hearing represented by a lawyer have a higher approval rate than applicants who represent themselves.
Updated January 11, 2024