Whether you have applied for disability benefits based on (Title II) or Supplemental Security Income (Title XVI) the disability test is the same (see my article, “What is the difference between Title II and Supplemental Security Income?”). Social security defines disability as the inability to engage in any substantial gainful work activity because of a severe and medically provable physical or mental impairment or impairments which has either lasted or can be expected to last for twelve continuous months or to result in death.
SSA uses a five step process to determine if a person meets this test. The steps are followed in order. At any step that a person is determined not to meet the test, the determination process ends.
Step one (substantial gainful activity) refers to whether you are working, performing substantial work activities and earning income from that activity. If you are engaged in substantial gainful work activity, no matter how impaired you are, you cannot get disability benefits. If you pass step one, the evaluation proceeds to step two.
Step two (severe medically provable impairment) refers to the reason you can’t engage in substantial gainful work activity. The cause has to be a physical or mental impairment (or combination of impairments) which have been proven to exist by accepted medical testing and which results in a significant reduction in your ability to perform basic work activities.
Step three, does the impairment meet or equal an impairment in SSA’S listing of impairments? If it does, the person is automatically qualified for disability. If it doesn’t, the evaluation process proceeds to step four.
Step four, does the person, in spite of the impairment, still have the capacity to perform his or her past work? To decide this, SSA must first determine what the persons’s residual (remaining) physical or mental functional capacity is. Then SSA looks at the work the person has done over the last fifteen years prior to filing for disability. That past relevant work is physically classified as sedentary, light, medium or heavy work. If a person’s past work includes a job that he or she still has the residual physical capacity to perform, he is not qualified for disability. A person claiming a mental impairment, must show that he or she does not have the remaining mental capacity to perform the basic mental work activities required by his past work or he is not qualified for disability.
If the person does not have the residual physical or mental capacity to do his past work, then SSA proceeds to the final step of the process, step five.
Step five, does the person have the residual physical or mental capacity to do other work which exists in significant numbers within the national economy? This step basically refers to whether a person retains the ability to do jobs other than those which they have performed in the past. At this step a person’s age, education and past work experience becomes important because SSA allows people as they get older to retain some capacity to work and still be considered disabled. For people under fifty, unless illiterate, any remaining capacity to work, even at jobs they have never performed or it is doubtful they would be hired to do, will disqualify them from receiving disability. But people fifty two and older can have the capacity to do sedentary and sometimes even light work and still be considered disabled since SSA assumes that they don’t retain the capacity to adjust to new work like younger people do.
If a person cannot do other work, he or she is disabled.