Social Security Benefits for Children with Low Vision or Blindness

Your child's low vision must be quite severe to qualify for SSI disability benefits.

Updated by Diana Chaikin, Attorney (Seattle University School of Law)

The Social Security Administration provides a type of disability benefit called Supplemental Security Income (SSI) for children whose families have income and assets below certain limits. If your child has low vision or blindness and your family has less than $2,000 in resources ($3,000 for couples), they may qualify for monthly SSI payments.

Determining whether a child meets the financial criteria for SSI can be complicated. Not all assets are counted towards the resource threshold, and some of the parents' income is considered as the child's for eligibility purposes. Children with blindness or poor eyesight who meet the non-medical requirements of SSI then need to have medical records showing greatly reduced vision before they'll begin receiving disability benefits.

When Can Children Get Disability for Low Vision or Blindness?

The Social Security Administration (SSA) has several methods for children to get disability benefits due to partial or total blindness or poor vision.

  • Your child's vision can't be corrected to 20/200 or better in at least one eye.
  • Your child's low vision meets or equals a "listed impairment" (see below).
  • Your child has a disorder covered by the Compassionate Allowances program.

You'll need to submit medical records from your child's optometrist or ophthalmologist, including a vision test (perimetry). Depending on the results of the perimetry, the SSA may determine that your child qualifies for disability benefits if their condition is expected to last for at least twelve months.

Children With Corrected 20/200 Vision or Less Qualify for Disability Automatically

If—despite wearing glasses or contact lenses—your child's vision isn't any better than 20/200 in their best eye, then the SSA will consider them legally blind. That means that your child can only see at 20 feet what people without vision loss can see at 200 feet. (Most glasses or contacts correct to "normal" 20/20 vision.)

Children who meet the SSA's statutory definition of blindness are automatically assumed to be disabled. You don't need to prove the cause of your child's vision loss or show how your child's poor vision affects their school performance or functioning.

What If My Child Doesn't Meet the 20/200 Criteria?

Children who aren't statutorily blind but still have very poor vision can qualify for benefits if they meet or equal the requirements of what Social Security calls a "listed impairment."

Listed impairments are health conditions that the SSA considers especially severe. Each impairment contains certain requirements, usually in the form of objective medical tests, that tell the agency when a condition is serious enough to be automatically disabling.

For children, vision impairments are evaluated under Section 102.00, Special Senses and Speech. The SSA has three separate listings for disorders of the eye, each with its own set of criteria depending on the type of vision loss. The requirements are very technical, so you might want to ask your child's eye doctor if they would meet one of the following listings.

Listing 102.02(B), Loss of Visual Acuity

Visual acuity is the term used to describe how well you see. Visual acuity is usually measured by using an eye chart and is expressed in terms of how far away from something you need to be in order to describe what it looks like. Technically, blindness is loss of visual acuity greater than 20/200.

Very young children, such as infants or toddlers, who aren't able to participate in standard vision tests can meet this listing by having evidence that their better eye is unable to fixate or follow objects. Additionally, their medical records must contain at least one of the following findings about vision in their better eye:

  • abnormal anatomical findings (such as an underdeveloped optic nerve) that indicate a vision level of 20/200 or less
  • abnormal neuroimaging (like a functional MRI) showing some injury to the cerebral cortex, which would likely lead to a vision level of 20/200 or less
  • a diagnosis of Leber's congenital amaurosis or achromatopsia, or
  • a lack of reaction to visual evoked response testing.

Listing 102.03, Contraction of the Visual Field in the Better Eye

Your visual field describes the total area of your peripheral (side-to-side) vision. Contraction of your visual field means that you might see objects as if through a small keyhole. For your child to meet this listing, their medical record needs to contain evidence of a very narrow visual field, as shown by one of the following test results:

  • a visual field 20 degrees in diameter or less,
  • an automated static threshold perimetry showing a mean deviation of at least 22 decibels, or
  • kinetic perimetry showing a visual field efficiency of not more than 20%.

Listing 102.04, Poor Visual Efficiency

Visual efficiency is a combination of your visual acuity and your visual field. The SSA has two methods of establishing poor visual efficiency that can result in your child meeting this listing:

  • calculating your visual acuity and visual field together results in a total visual efficiency of less than 20%, or
  • calculating the ratio of your visual acuity to your visual field results in a total visual deficiency value of 1.00 or more.

Remember that all of the above listings apply to your child's corrected vision. If your child is able to significantly improve their visual acuity, field, or efficiency with glasses or contact lenses, they're unlikely to meet the requirements of the visual disorder listings.

Children With Low Vision Can Functionally Equal the Listings

Even if your child doesn't have the specific test results for a vision impairment listing, the SSA will review the medical records for evidence that your child "functionally equals" the listings. Functional equivalence means that while your child's poor eyesight doesn't exactly meet the requirements of a listing, it limits their ability to perform basic daily activities so much that Social Security considers the condition basically the same as a listed impairment.

You can establish functional equivalence by showing that your child has an "extreme" limitation in one, or "marked" limitations in two, out of six areas ("domains") of functioning:

  • acquiring and using information
  • attending and completing tasks
  • interacting and relating to others
  • moving around and manipulating objects
  • caring for oneself, and
  • maintaining health and physical well-being.

Social Security will review your child's medical files to determine whether any of the above domains are affected as a result of their low vision (despite the use of glasses or contact lenses.)

For more information on how the SSA assesses the rest of the domains, see our article on when a child has disabling limitations in functioning.

Get Help With Your Child's Social Security Disability Application for Blindness or Low Vision

Qualifying for disability benefits due to poor eyesight can be challenging. Consider getting help from an experienced disability attorney or advocate to help increase your child's chances for a successful application. Your lawyer can help gather important medical records, respond to communications from Social Security, and represent your child at a disability hearing.

Updated March 21, 2023

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