How Hard Is It to Get Social Security Disability Benefits?

Social Security disability benefits provide a monthly payment for the length of time you are disabled. You may find that the Social Security definition of “disability” is difficult to meet, particularly in comparison with other disability insurance. Social Security disability standards require that you not be able to participate in “substantial gainful activity,” not just the job you worked before. If you are retrainable or if you can work in a different position and earn income, Social Security does not consider you disabled.

Work History Requirements

To receive Social Security disability benefits, you must have credits necessary to qualify for disability benefits. The most required is 10 years or 40 credits of payment into the Social Security system with Federal Insurance Contributions Act taxes. FICA taxes cover Social Security and Medicare. You may need as few as six credits in the last three years immediately prior to your disability claim. If you have not paid into the Social Security system with work credits, you may be eligible for Supplemental Security Income disability.


Your condition must have lasted 12 months or be expected to last 12 months — or to result in death. Apply for Social Security disability as soon as your disability begins because it takes several months for a disability ruling, and you may need to appeal. Social Security does not award partial disability benefits; it requires total disability. It checks your current employment as well as past employment to make a disability determination.

Medical Evidence

You must provide a diagnosis of a physical or mental condition that is demonstrable by medical or clinical evidence or laboratory diagnostic techniques. Supply medical records to support your disability claim. Your doctor does not determine your disability, but supplies answers to questions relating to your medical condition and limitations you face. Even if your condition is on the impairment list, you must prove your disability.

Substantial Gainful Activity

Social Security considers any activity that makes as much as $1,000 a month in 2011 as “substantial gainful activity.” Blind individuals may earn $1,640 and be considered disabled. Social Security ties substantial gainful activity amounts to the national average wage index, so the amount changes from year to year. If you can work at home and earn $1,000 a month in 2011, you do not meet the definition of disability for Social Security.

Residual Functional Capacity

The ability to perform work-like activities with your medical and mental condition is your residual functional capacity. This translates to the most work you can do on a regular weekly basis and is a key to receiving Social Security disability, particularly if Social Security denies your benefits and you appeal the case. The judge makes this determination, based on a review of the case and medical information.