Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) pays monthly benefits to permanently disabled adults age 18-64 who are unable to return to work.
Specific eligibility criteria apply, including the conditions that qualify for disability and how long and how recently you have been employed.
Payments vary depending on your lifetime earnings. You may also be eligible to get other benefits with SSDI, too.
Several years ago, when a job-related disability forced Cathy to stop working, she likely would have qualified for Social Security Disability Insurance.
Unfortunately, this 69-year-old Wisconsin resident didn’t know much about the program and hadn’t been well-informed about her options. As a result, Cathy ended up missing out on several years’ worth of crucial benefits that would have made a real difference in her monthly budget.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as many as 27% of adults in the U.S. live with some form of disability—more than 12% of whom, like Cathy, report serious mobility challenges that prevent them from walking or climbing stairs.1 Cathy was fortunate; she had some financial resources that helped her convert her home into accessible living space. She was unfortunate, though, because those renovations completely wiped out her retirement and savings accounts. Now living on a fixed income, and with significant out-of-pocket medical costs on top of it, she subsequently struggled to pay for food and other daily expenses.
Could this describe you or someone you know? Learn more about the Social Security Disability Insurance program (SSDI) so you can avoid what happened to Cathy.
What is Social Security Disability Insurance, or SSDI?
Social Security disability benefits provide monthly financial support for insured individuals whose condition falls within a narrow—and strict—definition of disability (more on this below).
It’s important to know that “insured” does not refer to your Medicare, Medicaid, or other health coverage status. It means that you have worked long enough, and recently enough, to have paid into Social Security. That’s because payroll taxes fund the SSDI program.
According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, more than 8.3 million adults received SSDI benefits in 2021—representing 4.1% of the U.S. population age 18-64.2
What conditions qualify for disability?
In debating the creation of SSDI, first implemented in July 1956, planners deliberately created strict boundaries around the definition of “disability.” That’s because they wanted to weed out applicants who were unemployed thanks to the Great Depression, but who otherwise were able to work.3
As those original planners wrote it, a qualifying disability described “an impairment of mind or body which continuously renders it impossible for the disabled person to follow any substantial gainful occupation;” one that was likely to last for “the rest of a person's life.”
Although that definition has undergone some refinement in the half-century since, its core spirit endures. Today, in order to be eligible for Social Security Disability Insurance, you must be living with complete disability. That means that your medical condition4:
- Prevents you from engaging in work or other “substantial gainful activity”
- Prevents you from doing the work you used to do
- Prevents you from adjusting to a new type of work
- Is likely either to last a year or more, or result in death
In simpler terms, a qualifying disability is one that “significantly limits your ability to do basic work-related activities, such as lifting, standing, walking, sitting, or remembering” for at least 12 months.4
The Social Security Administration maintains a list of qualifying conditions, but it’s important to note that each individual case is different. Someone from your state Social Security office will work with you to help determine your eligibility.
What are the Social Security disability requirements for adults?
Providing you have a qualifying disability, there are a few other requirements you need to meet in order to be eligible for SSDI benefits4:
1. You must already have been disabled for five consecutive months.
Once you fulfill this criterium, known as a “waiting period,” Social Security will begin paying your benefits. These benefits will continue up to the time that you can resume work and may be retroactive for up to 12 months in certain cases.
There is one exception to this requirement, often called the Social Security disability 5 year rule, which applies if you are able to return to work following a period of disability but need to re-apply for SSDI. In this instance, the waiting period is waived as long as you previously were entitled to benefits “any time within five years of the month you again became disabled.”5
2. You must have earned enough “work credits” prior to becoming disabled.
Social Security determines work credits based on your annual earnings or self-employment income. You may earn a maximum of four credits per year (in 2023, you earn one work credit for every $1,640 in wages you make, up to a maximum of $6,560).
In order to be eligible for SSDI, you generally must have banked 40 work credits—20 of them in the 10 years prior to having become disabled.
What SSDI benefits do I qualify for?
Everyone’s Social Security disability pay is different. That’s because benefits depend on average lifetime earnings, which can vary widely depending on an individual’s work history.
That said, as of January 2023, the average monthly SSDI benefit payment was $1,4836—an amount that reflects Social Security’s unprecedented 8.7% cost of living (COLA) increase.
While there’s no benefits pay chart that shows Social Security Disability Insurance amounts, you can estimate what your particular monthly payment might be using the SSA’s online benefits calculator.
How do I apply for Social Security Disability Insurance?
There are three ways to go about it:
- Fill out an online application
- Call the Social Security Administration at (800) 772-1213, 7 a.m. – 7 p.m., Monday through Friday (TTY 800-325-0778)
- Visit your local Social Security office to apply in person
What other benefits can I get with SSDI?
Most people are eligible for Medicare insurance coverage after 24 months of receiving Social Security Disability Insurance payments.7
You also may be eligible for other key financial benefits that can help cover the costs of food, prescription medicine, household utilities, and more. Cathy, for instance, now receives the maximum monthly SNAP amount thanks to information and education she received at her local food bank. “I am overjoyed and grateful” for this assistance, she exclaimed.
Every year, older adults leave billions of dollars in vital assistance on the table simply because they don’t know these opportunities exist or how to apply for them. Use NCOA’s free, confidential BenefitsCheckUp® tool to see whether you or someone you know is eligible for money-saving programs.
1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Disability Affects All of Us.” Found on the internet at https://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/disabilityandhealth/infographic-disability-impacts-all.html
2. Kaiser Family Foundation. State Health Facts. “Total Disabled Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) Beneficiaries, Ages 18-64.” Found on the internet at https://www.kff.org/medicare/state-indicator/total-disabled-social-security-disability-insurance-ssdi-beneficiaries-ages-18-64/?currentTimeframe=0&sortModel=%7B%22colId%22:%22Location%22,%22sort%22:%22asc%22%7D
3. Edward D. Berkowitz. Statement before the Subcommittee on Social Security of the Committee on Ways and Means, 13 July 2000. Social Security Administration Disability Policy and History. Found on the internet at https://www.ssa.gov/history/edberkdib.html
4. Social Security Administration, “Disability Benefits: How You Qualify.” Found on the internet at https://www.ssa.gov/benefits/disability/qualify.html#anchor3
5. Social Security Administration, “Code of Federal Regulations: Who is entitled to disability benefits?” Found on the internet at https://www.ssa.gov/OP_Home/cfr20/404/404-0315.htm
6. Social Security Administration, “Fact Sheet: 2023 Social Security Changes.” Found on the internet at https://www.ssa.gov/news/press/factsheets/colafacts2023.pdf
7. Social Security Administration, “Medicare Information. Found on the internet at https://www.ssa.gov/disabilityresearch/wi/medicare.htm