Disability is defined by the Social Security administration as the "inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which can be expected to result in death or which has lasted or expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months".
While it seems that definition would cover most disabilities, many who are disabled due to a chronic illness feel that this definition of disability does not cover them.
They are quick to point out that the definition of disability found in most dictionaries state it is "the condition of being unable to perform as a consequence of physical or mental unfitness".
The largest problem those with chronic illness seem to have with the Social Security administration's definition of disability is that it is set up to take care of those with a 'static', unchanging disability, such as blindness, mental retardation, learning disabilities, and those with serious disabilities, such as being a quadriplegic. Those with chronic illness are disabled, yet it is not static. Some days they can work, while others they cannot, and there is no way to predict when they will be healthy or sick. Chronic illness is a disability that oftentimes prevents one from working, performing normal daily tasks and socializing, albeit not one that is static and unchanging.
This 'ever changing' form of disability poses problems within the system. Once a person has obtained disability benefits, they are unable to work at all. If they do decide to try and exhaust the nine month trial period of work and then continue to perform 'substantial gainful employment', they lose their benefits. For those with chronic illness it is not this cut and dry. They may be able to work easily for months or years, only to be struck with symptoms of their illness and be bedridden for weeks. While there is a 36-month extension period that allows them to obtain benefits when they need to, three years can come and go, leaving them without benefits after the extension period.
The system does not have any specific guidelines that cater to those with ever-changing chronic illness. The best those with chronic illness can do is apply for benefits and not work, which leaves them with a very small income. Hopefully this will change in the future.
Reference: Carol Duncan is the founder of www.ssdrc.com