New Definitions of Disabilities

In 1935, the agency we know as the Social Security Administration (SSA) was created. In its 75 years, the SSA has undertaken many changes. In August 2010, a proposed revision of Social Security's Criteria for Mental Disorders was published in the Federal Register. Replacing the American Psychiatric Association (APA) criteria, the Administration's new criteria cite the American Association of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities (AAIDD) definitions for intellectual disabilities.

The AAIDD, formerly the American Association of Mental Retardation, has been in existence since 1876. The group is the largest and oldest multidisciplinary organization of citizens and professions who promote sound research, human rights protections and accurate methodology as it relates to those with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

Under the AAIDD's recently published resource, the definition for intellectual disability is "a disability characterized by significant limitations both in intellectual functioning and in adaptive behavior, which covers many everyday social and practical skills." Considered to originate prior to the age of 18, intellectual disabilities will consider components of mental capacity and adaptive behavior, such as learning, reasoning, problem solving and social, practical and conceptual skills.

The previous mental disorders listing was last revised in December 1990 and was based in part on the APA's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). According to the APA, intellectual disability, formerly called mental retardation, was significantly below average intellectual and adaptive functioning with onset before age 18. Under this definition, developmental disabilities could be considered.

The intent of the SSA's proposed changes is to update eligibility criteria under titles II and XVI of the Social Security Act, so that applications will be evaluated based on the accurate and current diagnostic criteria, assessment strategies and knowledge of the disability. In making this change, the SSA hopes that applications will be more appropriately scrutinized and benefit determinations would be more accurate. The new rule will require a finding of significant limitations in adaptive behavior and consider psychosocial supports.

For nearly eight decades, the SSA has helped disabled citizens and their families. With the recent announcement of these proposed rules, the SSA hopes to fine-tune its existing claims and benefits evaluations. In the wave of various reforms, the Administration continues to fulfill its mission and develop innovative ways to provide crucial supports to the public, and with this new change may better serve disabled children and adults.