Social Security’s Definition of Disability and the Sequential Evaluation Process

The Social Security Administration defines disability as an individual who suffers from physical and mental impairments that are expected to last for at least a year, has lasted a year, or will result in death and prevent work at a substantial level ($1,260 gross per month).

The Social Security Administration uses a five-step sequential process to evaluate claims.

  1. The first step is evaluating whether or not an individual is currently working and earning substantial earnings (SGA) of $1220 per month. Social security has a few exceptions to this rule including a higher earnings allowance for blind individuals and deductions for subsidized employment.
  2. The next step is determining whether an individual suffers from a severe impairment. Social Security requires that an individual’s condition has lasted or is expected to last at least twelve months. The condition must impact an individual’s ability to perform work.
  3. The next step is whether or not an individual’s condition satisfies the criteria of any of the listed impairments in Social Security’s Blue Book. Not all conditions are listed within the Blue Book. Also, many people suffer from listed conditions, but not at the severity level required. If an individual’s condition meets the criteria of a listed impairment, that individual is found disabled under the regulations. If an individual’s condition does not satisfy the criteria in the Blue Book, the process continues to the next step. Please note that most people suffer from a combination of impairments that don’t neatly satisfy this step.
  4. If an individual does not meet a listed impairment, the Social Security Administration will evaluate whether an individual’s impairments prevent return to past relevant work. At this stage Social Security will formulate your residual functional capacity meaning they will assess all of your conditions and their symptoms. Social Security will look at your last fifteen years of employment and determine if your conditions allow you to return to any of these positions.

If Social Security determines that an individual is unable to return to past relevant work, then they must consider whether an individual can do any other work in the national economy. This is essentially a determination to see if an individual can make an adjustment to other work.