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Decoding Disability Benefits: The 5-Step Social Security Evaluation Process

Updated: Aug 3, 2023

Introduction: When applying for Social Security Disability benefits, it's essential to understand the evaluation process used by the Social Security Administration (SSA) to determine eligibility. The SSA employs a sequential 5-step evaluation process to assess an individual's disability claim. In this blog post, we will explain each step of the evaluation process, providing you with a comprehensive understanding of how your claim will be evaluated.

Step 1: Substantial Gainful Activity (SGA): In the first step, the SSA assesses whether you are engaged in substantial gainful activity (SGA). If your earnings exceed a certain threshold set by the SSA (which is $1,470 per month for non-blind individuals in 2023), it may be concluded that you are not disabled and your claim will be denied. (& in fact you may not even be allowed to make an application.)

Step 2: Severity of Impairments: If you are not engaged in SGA, the evaluation proceeds to the second step, where the SSA determines if your impairments significantly limit your ability to perform basic work-related activities. To proceed to the next step, your impairments must be severe enough to interfere with your ability to work.

Step 3: Listing of Impairments: At this stage, the SSA refers to its Listing of Impairments, also known as the "Blue Book." This book contains a list of medical conditions and specific criteria that, if met, automatically qualify an individual as disabled. If your impairments meet or medically equal the criteria in the Blue Book, you will be considered disabled and this is the end of the process.

Step 4: Ability to Perform Past Work: If your impairments do not meet the criteria of the Blue Book, the SSA assesses your ability to perform any past relevant work. They consider your functional limitations, age, education, and work experience to determine if you can still perform your previous job or any other work you have done in the past. This part is complicated because the assessment also must consider that if you are over the age of 50yo and have never performed a sit down job and have no skills that transfer to a sit down job. If you are over the age of 50 and have never performed a sedentary (sit-down) job, then it is possible to be found disabled at this step. If you are under 50yo or over 50yo and have performed sedentary work, then the evaluation process will proceed to Step 5.

Click here for more explanation about this legal issue.

Step 5: Ability to Perform Other Work: If you are unable to perform your past work, the final step involves assessing your ability to perform any other work considering your age, education, work experience, and functional limitations. The SSA evaluates if there is any other work available in the national economy that you can reasonably perform, despite your impairments. If the SSA concludes that you cannot perform other work, you will be considered disabled, and your claim will be approved.

The Social Security 5-Step Evaluation Process is designed to determine an individual's eligibility for disability benefits. It begins with assessing substantial gainful activity, then evaluates the severity of impairments, refers to the Listing of Impairments, considers the ability to perform past work, and finally determines the ability to perform other work. Understanding this process can help you navigate the application process more effectively and provide the necessary information to support your disability claim.

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