Understanding Social Security Disability Benefits

By Vonda Vantil, Social Security Public Affairs Specialist

Disability is something most people don’t like to think about, but the chances that you’ll become disabled probably are greater than you realize. Studies show that a 20-year-old worker has a 1-in-4 chance of becoming disabled before reaching full retirement age.

Social Security pays disability benefits through two programs:

  • The Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) program and;
  • The Supplemental Security Income (SSI) program.

Social Security Disability Insurance is funded through payroll taxes. Social Security Disability Insurance recipients have worked for years and have made contributions to the Social Security trust fund in the form of Social Security taxes – either FICA (Federal Insurance Contributions Act) for employees or SECA (Self-Employment Contributions Act) for the self-employed.

SSI is a means-tested program, meaning it has nothing to do with work history, but provides payments to people with disabilities who have low income and few resources. Social Security manages the program, but SSI is not paid for by Social Security taxes. Social Security pays benefits to people who can’t work because they have a medical condition that’s expected to last at least one year or result in death. Federal law requires this very strict definition of disability. While some programs give money to people with partial disability or short-term disability, Social Security does not.

It’s important that you know which benefits you may be qualified to receive. You can read more about Social Security Disability Insurance at www.socialsecurity.gov/pubs/EN-05-10029.pdf and more about SSI at www.socialsecurity.gov/pubs/EN-05-11000.pdf.

When you apply for either program, we’ll collect medical and other information from you and make a decision about whether or not you meet Social Security’s definition of disability. In addition to meeting our definition of disability, you must have worked long enough — and recently enough — under Social Security to qualify for SSDI benefits.

To see if you meet the requirements for disability benefits, visit www.socialsecurity.gov/planners/disability/qualify.html.

Social Security covers millions of people, including children, wounded warriors, and people who are chronically ill. And this is just a part of what we do. Remember, you can also apply for retirement, spouse’s, Medicare, or disability benefits online at www.socialsecurity.gov/forms/apply-for-benefits.html.

Vonda VanTil is the Public Affairs Specialist for West Michigan.  You can write her c/o Social Security Administration, 3045 Knapp NE, Grand Rapids MI 49525 or via email at vonda.vantil@ssa.gov.