Having a 'Disability' Depends on Which Law You're Talking About

Under federal law, you may have a disability for purposes of anti-discrimination laws but still not qualify as "disabled" when it comes time to apply for Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI), Supplemental Security Income (SSI) or Medicaid.

This confounding result is caused by the differences between the Social Security Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

Congress enacted the ADA in 1990 in order to protect people with disabilities from discrimination in employment, public accommodations and telecommunications. The ADA prohibits employers from discriminating against qualified employees or job applicants with disabilities, and it also sets out broad standards for making public buildings and communications systems accessible to people with disabilities.

Because the ADA was designed as an inclusive law, it adopted a broad definition of "disabled." According to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the federal agency that enforces much of the ADA, a person has a disability under the ADA if she has a physical or mental condition that substantially limits a major life activity, or if she has a history of a disability (like cancer in remission) or if "[s]he is believed to have a physical or mental impairment that is not transitory (lasting or expected to last six months or less) and minor (even if [s]he does not have such an impairment)". Therefore, a person may be considered "disabled" for purposes of the ADA even if she is not currently suffering from an impairment at all, because, for purposes of combating discrimination, it is important to fight against negative assumptions and unnecessary stigmatization of people with disabilities, even if the discrimination is not directed at a person with a current disability.

The SSDI and SSI programs, on the other hand, were not designed with inclusiveness in mind. Instead, these programs, which often provide desperately needed financial and medical assistance to people with special needs, are structured to make it hard for people to access benefits. So instead of using a broad definition of disability, both SSDI and SSI consider someone "disabled" only when he has a physical or mental impairment that is expected to last longer than a year or result in death and that makes the applicant incapable of engaging in substantial gainful activity. In 2013, a non-blind person cannot make more than $1,040 a month from working and qualify for SSDI or SSI.

Because the two laws are not designed to work together, it's quite possible for someone to be disabled when it comes to employment discrimination while not being considered disabled when she applies for disability benefits from the Social Security Administration. For instance, a lawyer in a wheelchair is clearly "disabled" for purposes of filing suit against a firm that won't hire her because they are uncomfortable with her appearance, but that same lawyer won't qualify for SSDI benefits because she is capable of engaging in substantial gainful activity.

The lesson from these differing definitions: talk to your special needs planner before applying for government benefits, because the government may not agree with your definition of disability when it comes time to receive SSDI or SSI.

Article Last Modified: 05/09/2013