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Social Security Disability Terms

  • Synopsis: Published: 2013-06-06 (Revised/Updated 2017-06-28) - A list of disability terminology used by US department of Social Security and what they mean. For further information pertaining to this article contact: Law Offices of Kenneth Hiller at

Main Document

Quote: "The inability to perform substantial gainful activity is a critical part of the SSA's definition of disability."

If you are like most people seeking Social Security Disability benefits, you have done some research to find out how the process works. You have probably found websites filled with unfamiliar terms and an alphabet soup of acronyms. Below are five terms you may encounter and an explanation of why they may be important for your case.

Earnings Record

This is your work history.

The SSA tracks the amount you earn each year you work. You receive credits based on your total yearly wages or income from self-employment. You can earn up to four credits each year.

Why It Matters:

You must have worked long enough to qualify for disability benefits under the insurance program. Usually, you will need 40 credits to qualify for Social Security Disability benefits, and 20 of those credits must have been earned in the 10 years before you became disabled. If you have not worked long enough to qualify for SSD, you may be eligible for Supplemental Security Income.

Substantial Gainful Activity

This describes the level of work activity you can do and how much you earn.

Substantial gainful activity means the level of work that you can do and how much you can earn. Substantial work involves significant physical or mental activities. Gainful means that you performed the work for pay, or that the work would usually be performed for pay. For most applicants, earning more than $1,040 per month will usually show substantial gainful activity.

Why It Matters:

The inability to perform substantial gainful activity is a critical part of the SSA's definition of disability. If you can work, you likely do not qualify for benefits. When the SSA determines whether you qualify for disability benefits, it must often consider whether you can work at one of your past past jobs or in a different job.

Medically Determinable Impairments

According to the SSA, this results from "anatomical, physiological or psychological abnormalities."

In order to be medically determinable, you must have medical evidence that includes symptoms, signs and laboratory findings. Your medical condition must be shown by clinical or laboratory diagnoses that are medically acceptable.

Why It Matters:

The SSA will not approve your application based on your statements alone. You must have medical evidence and documentation from a doctor or other acceptable medical professional.

Listing Of Impairments

This is a list of conditions that the SSA considers serious enough to prevent someone from doing any gainful activity.

These conditions are usually permanent or expected to be fatal. The Listing of Impairments specifies the severity of these conditions.

Why It Matters:

If your medical condition meets or equals a listed impairment, the SSA will consider you disabled. You will not have to prove that your disability prevents you from working at any kind of job. Conditions that are listed impairments are presumed to prevent you from working. If your condition does not meet or equal a condition on the listing of impairments, you can still qualify for benefits, but you will have to provide additional information.

Administrative Law Judge

An administrative law judge is a neutral fact-finder who decides a case after an applicant for disability benefits has appealed a denial at the initial level. This term is often shortened to ALJ.

Why It Matters:

A majority of SSD applications are initially denied, and claimants must often appeal to obtain benefits. Although a hearing for an ALJ is usually the second step in the appeal process, it is often the first time that applicants can appear in person and present evidence in person.

If you have other questions about Social Security Disability, an experienced attorney can provide you with answers and an explanation of the entire process.

Related Information:

  1. ADA Accessibility Terms and Definitions - Glossary of Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) Accessibility terms and guidelines - (Published 2013-06-05).
  2. What is Disability Adjusted Life Year (DALY) - Disability adjusted life year is a measure of overall disease burden expressed as the number of years lost due to ill-health disability or early death - (Published 2011-11-07).
  3. Definitions of The Models of Disability - Glossary list of definitions and explanations of the Models of Disability in society today - (Published 2010-09-10).

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