Decoding the Social Security Administration’s Disability Determination Process

The process of applying for and being granted receipt of Social Security Disability (SSD) benefits is a complex one. While SSD determinations are guided by federal law, the process is still a subjective one that can be difficult to understand.

How Are Disability Determinations Made?

The Social Security Administration (SSA) has a five-step process for determining if an applicant is eligible for disability benefits. The SSA's determinations are made on the basis of answers given to the following questions:

  • Is the applicant working?
  • Does the applicant have a "severe" medical condition or limitation?
  • Is the applicant's condition one listed in the SSA's list of automatically qualifying medical conditions or one of equal severity to a listed condition?
  • Can the applicant perform the duties of his or her prior job(s)?
  • Can the applicant perform a new type of work?

What Factors Influence the Decision of the SSA?

The severity of an applicant's condition and whether or not it is a recognized disability are two of the most important factors that the SSA will analyze when making a disability eligibility determination. The condition must be severe enough that it significantly impacts the applicant's ability to perform job duties and either be recognized as a disability by federal law - examples are double amputation, statutory blindness, loss of speech, obstructive asthma, chronic heart failure and uncontrolled epilepsy - or equivalent in impact to a recognized disability. Essentially, the SSA is analyzing whether or not the condition has a substantial effect on when, where and how the applicant is able to work to support him or herself.

While this five-step process might seem like a relatively simple one, each of the steps leaves ample room for subjectivity and personal interpretation. That is why so many people who appeal an initial denial of disability are granted benefits at a later date. Working with an experienced social security disability attorney from the beginning of the process could have a huge impact on the success of a disability claim. If you are disabled and would like more information about the social security disability claims process, seek the guidance of an experienced lawyer in your area.