How Social Security considers your ability to work in a disability case

Under Social Security regulations, disability is the inability to engage in a “substantial gainful activity.” This means that to win a Social Security disability case, you have to show that your impairments prevent you from being able to work.

More specifically, you have to show that you are unable to perform the duties of any work you have performed over the past 15 years AND that you are unable to perform the duties of any other work that exists in substantial numbers in the national economy. Note: these are steps 4 and 5 of the sequential evaluation process.

The general rule is that if you can still perform the duties of a job, you are not disabled. Note: this is a very simplified definition and there are a number of significant exceptions including whether the job is a substantial gainful activity, the effects of your age, etc. Right now though, I want you to understand the main issue in Social Security disability cases.

What DOESN’T Social Security consider when looking at your ability to work?

  1. Social Security does not consider whether the kinds of jobs you can perform are available in your area.
  2. Social Security does not consider if employers are hiring.
  3. Social Security does not consider if you can get hired.

Phew! That’s a tough standard!

Disclaimer: This is NOT legal advice. This site provides general information about Social Security disability cases in Colorado. To discuss your particular circumstances, please contact a lawyer in your area. Please review the full disclaimer .

About Tomasz Stasiuk

Tomasz Stasiuk is a Colorado Springs Social Security disability lawyer and the founding attorney of the Stasiuk Firm - a law firm specializing in Social Security disability cases in Colorado. Follow Tomasz Stasiuk on Google and Twitter

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  • J White

    With regard to your article “What Social Security DOESN'T cover,” I, perhaps mistenly, understood that there are Special Considerations such as: (1) age (over 55) where the availabilty of suitable jobs or (2) whether the disability-applicant is a Professional (physician, lawyer, corporate Sr Exec). Is this so?

  • Woeful Wendy

    First, kudos for creating this site. The information is valuable (and so much less contradictory, and better written, than SSA’s own site and pamphlets). What I didn’t see addressed (but I might have missed it–because of my particular disabling situation, I can only sit, and esp. sit at my computer, for up to 2, maybe 3, hours at a time) was information on being self-employed and trying to work under the Trial Work program. I ran into problems with my local SSA office not understanding the particulars of the industry I once worked in, and esp. since I was self-employed in this industry when I became disabled. (It was resolved in my favor, but it took a few nail-biting months and a lot of anxiety on my part before it was resolved in my favor.) To be brief, I’ve suffered for 20+ years from an inflammatory bowel disease. I had 7 surgeries during that time but luckily worked for a company that had both short- and long-term disability benefits and generous sick days benefits (I generally used 15-20 sick days a year due to flare-ups and hospitalizations for blockages). Three years ago I quit to work as an independent contractor (in publishing, working as a project manager and content editor for various clients/publishers who outsource this kind of work). About 9-10 months working as an independent contractor, I suffered a series of catastrophic medical problems. The worst of those was a blood clot that broke into smaller pieces and lodged in various organs. One of those clots blocked blood flow to my intestines. By the time the medical team realized this and opened me up, all but 4 inches of bowel was necrotic. That is, all of my intestines died from lack of blood flow. I was left with just 4 inches of jejunum, period. A whole series of nasty complications set in (since your small intestine is responsible for maintaining a healthy immune system), sepsis, fluid around my lungs, etc. Fifty-seven days in the hospital, a portion of that in ICU. Because I only have 4 inches of intestine (my jejunum), I cannot eat or digest food. I am “fed” for 12 hours every day by IV (something called TPN). My sole source of nutrition is what is in these “bags” of “food” that contain the lipids, minerals, etc. needed to keep organs functioning and a person from dying from starvation. Since the body still produces bile even if you do not eat or drink, the surgeon inserted a tube into my jejunum so the bile had some place to drain (otherwise I would just vomit nearly continuously). So I have a feeding tube but in my case it is used as a drainage tube attached to what is basically a large urinary drainage bag. I empty this 6-8 times a day. I’m very limited in what clothing I can wear because of the tube’s location (beside the navel). I also have a Hickman catheter in my chest, which is used for TPN (the bag of nutrients is infused through my catheter over 12 hours every single day) and for several other infusions I require. (Since I cannot take any medication in oral or pill form, and have almost zero absorption ability because of the lack of small intestine in particular, the 8 medications I require are also given intravenously.) I also have to change the dressing around my J tube site 3-4 times a day, and at night. Unfortunately, these J tubes can fall out (since they are held in “place” by a small “balloon” inside the jejunum that is filled with about 10 ccs of saline; since bile is so acidic, these balloons eventually leak or outright burst, and the J tube falls out. So I generally have a new J tube put in, via outpatient surgery, every 4-6 months. I also have about 20 various doctor’s appointments every month, all related to my condition. A home nurse comes once a week to draw bloodwork (since the results of the bloodwork determines what goes into my TPN bags each week and to monitor how thin/thick my blood is since I’m also on blood thinners for life). Just taking care of my personal medical needs takes up about 4 total hours every day, then there is the 12 hours of TPN “feeding,” so that is 16 hours every day devoted just to keeping me alive. I sleep about 4-5 hours every night. That leaves me around 4 hours every day to actually work. (Sorry–I tried to be brief, truly, lol, but realized my situation is so complicated there’s no real way to be truly brief.) Anyway, that is the gist of my situation. So there are many 4-5 hours a day I have that I can work, maybe a little less since I can’t sit more than 2 or so hours straight–I need to lie down for a bit after those 2 hours and also get up and walk around frequently to help prevent NEW blood clots from forming because of being so sedentary. But like most people, I do not get enough SS disability payment to cover all my medical expenses (I have 8 months to go before I can go on Medicare). However, though my SS payments aren’t enough to cover my medical expenses, I get “too much” to qualify for SSI or Medicaid. So I need to earn additional income somehow or make the scary decision of, which medications do I stop taking since I can’t afford them all (though all are needed to keep me alive, so stopping any of them is like playing roulette with my life). So I am attempting to work again as a freelance editor. The problem with that, of course, is that there are deadlines to meet. Often hard to do when I’m limited to maybe 4 total hours a day in which I can work. The confusion (at least for my local SS office) is that I’m considered self-employed (which as a freelance editor, I am). But there are no standard hours I work every month and no standard payment. Deadlines, how much I get paid per hour, how many hours I work, depend on the particular project I am working on and on the client, as no two publishers pay the same rate, no two projects have the same deadline (one “job” may last 1 month, another may last 4 months), and I don’t work for any one company but for several potentially. I understand under the Trial Work Program that I am not limited to how much money I can earn but any earnings over X amount (I forget offhand what it is for 2010) count as a trial work month. The dilemma in that is that I do not invoice every month because if an author is very slow, I may wait weeks before I have manuscript to work on. So when I DO submit an invoice to my local SS office, that invoice may conceivably cover 3 months’ worth of work (even though one of those months I may have only worked, say, 10 total hours because the author is so slow writing the manuscript and sending it to me). So I’m not sure how to submit my invoice/create the invoice. Still break it down by how many hours I worked/how much I earned in each month, even though I will submit to the client just ONE invoice that covers a 3-month period? Would that one invoice be considered one trial work month? (Every publisher is different in how they pay–some will ask that you submit an invoice every month, others that you submit an invoice once half of a project has been edited, while another publisher, if it is a short project (say, under 300 pages total), will ask that you invoice at the end of the project–so only one invoice would be submitted for that project even if the work was spread over 2-4 months.) Do you see my dilemma? I guess I’m not certain how I should send SS invoices (I do track my hours worked every day very carefully; if one day I work no hours, I will put “0” hours worked for that day). And SS doesn’t seem to have an answer either. But I don’t want to risk losing my disability benefits because my health is precarious enough that I may be fine one month, and then hospitalized a few days the following month for an infection or a tube change. In fact, I attempted this trial work program last year on a long-term project (11 months in total) and had to turn it back over to the publisher unfinished because I fell behind on the deadline. So my questions are: what would you suggest I do/don’t do to make sure I do not jeopardize my SS payments? Because the nature of the work I do, I can work from home using my laptop and Internet access. Would SS eventually decide I don’t need SS disability payments since I can still work from home, even though there is no guarantee any project I accept I can finish since I cannot predict an infection, needing a new J tube, or maybe too fatigued to work more than an hour each day. The few clients I do have who are willing to give me work, when they have it, are aware of my medical constraints and are usually willing to work around them. My worry is that SS will decide I can earn a “living” doing this work and not need disability payments, when it is absolutely not the case. Should I just not bother attempting to work at all? (I want to work, as much as I’m physically able to, even if it is just a few hours a week, not just because my disability payments do not cover all my expenses every month but because psychologically I just cannot spend every day doing nothing but staring at the walls or reading a book or watching tv. I need to feel/be productive in SOME way.) So any help or suggestions are much appreciated. And apologies for this being MUCH longer than I had intended it to be. But with the unique nature of my particular illness/disease and trying to work as a freelancer (ie, self employed), it required making this comment much longer than I’d have preferred just so that I could clearly cover all the particulars of my own situation.