In determining if an applicant is "disabled" for purposes of Social Security disability benefits, the Social Security Administration (SSA) uses a five step evaluation process. Below is a general, step-by-step explanation of the process.
Step 1: Substantial Gainful Activity (SGA)
SGA directly relates to the applicant's work activity. The SSA sets a limit on earnings and if an applicant's earnings are above the set limit, they are found not disabled. This is because the applicant will be found to be engaging in SGA. However, this limit changes each year. For example, in 2009 the limit was $980 per month-- if an applicant, on average, was earning more than $980 per month, they are automatically found not disabled at this step and will be denied benefits.
Step 2: Severity
At this step, the SSA considers the medical severity of the applicant's impairment(s). To be a severe impairment, the impairment must interfere with basic work-related activities. Further, the impairment must be expected to last at least twelve months or to result in death. Failure to meet these two requirements will result in a finding of not disabled.
Step 3: Listings
The SSA also considers the medical severity of the applicant's impairment(s) at this step. The SSA maintains a listing of medical criteria that are considered to be so severe that an applicant is found to be disabled if his or her impairment matches such listings. As mentioned, the listings are severe conditions and it is rare that an applicant's condition will exactly match the listing (or is of equal severity). However, if an applicant's condition does match a listing, he or she will be found disabled at this step. Otherwise, the SSA will proceed to step four.
Step 4: Past Relevant Work
At step four the SSA considers an applicant's past relevant work. If an applicant retains the physical and mental capacity to perform any past relevant work, he or she will be found not disabled. If no past relevant work can be done, or if the applicant has no relevant work, the SSA moves on to step five.
Step 5: Other Work
At this final step, the "burden of proof" shifts to the SSA to show that work, other than what the applicant performed in the past, exists in significant numbers in the national economy that he or she can make an adjustment to, considering the limiting effects of the individual's impairment, age, education, and work experience. Ultimately, if an applicant can make an adjustment to other work, he or she is found to be not disabled. If an applicant can not make an adjustment to other work, he or she is found disabled.
The Social Security disability process is very complex and is designed to be difficult. If you have an impairment and can not work due to such impairment, it is always wise to contact a social security disability lawyer to learn your options.