What counts as a disability? (age 18+)

Social Security has specific definitions of what they consider 'disabled.' 

The definition for adults depends on their ability to work.

Someone who is 18 or older may be considered disabled if:

They have a medically determinable physical or mental impairment that: 

Image showing disability requirements for medically determinable physical or mental impairment. Includes the text 'Stops them from performing substantial gainful activity (level of work and pay). Has lasted for at least 1 year. Will probably last for 1 year. Or may cause death

Here's the specific definition of disability for adults:

Someone who has a medically determinable physical or mental impairment that:

  • Means that they can’t perform substantial gainful activity


  • has lasted for at least 1 year (or will probably last for 1 year) OR may cause death

Medically Determinable means the impairment must be diagnosed by a doctor or other professional. In other words, Social Security doesn't just take your word for it. They'll ask for paperwork from your family member's doctor.

Substantial Gainful Activity (SGA) means a level of work activity and pay that is both substantial and gainful.

  • For work to be substantial, it does not need to be full time. Part-time work may also be considered as SGA.

  • For your work to be gainful, it needs to be:

    • done for pay or profit, or

    • the kind of work that is generally done for pay or profit, or

    • meant for profit, whether or not you actually get paid.

  • There are specific guidelines that tell you if your family member’s work counts as SGA. It will probably count as SGA if they earn over $1,130 a month. (There are different guidelines for people who are blind.) So if they earn less than that, they may qualify for SSI.

How does Social Security make a decision about disability?

Image with the subject 'For adults over the age of 18 applying for SSI, Social Security will review these things:' above the text 'Their current job (if any), How severe their impairment is, If their impairment meets the guidelines for disabilities, Their work history, Their ability to do work now, based on: age, education and work experience.'

To learn more: 

Click on these links for more information from the Social Security website: (They will open in a new tab on your screen.)

Sources: Social Security, Jackins (2010).