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The Social Security world can be confusing, with all its abbreviations -- such as SSDI, SSI, SSN, and so on. It's worth learning more about it, though, because Social Security offers much more than just retirement benefits. If you're disabled, for example, you may qualify for benefits and may want to learn how to submit an application. Read on!

Let's first clear up two often confused letter groupings, though -- SSDI and SSI. There are two Social Security programs that offer benefits to the disabled: the Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) program and the Supplemental Security Income (SSI). This article is focused on the SSDI program -- which as of 2015, was delivering benefits to about 10.8 million  people, including close to 9 million disabled workers, more than 140,000 spouses, and more than 1.7 million children.

Here's a quick explanation of the SSI, though, as it may be of use to you or someone you know. The Supplemental Security Income program is designed to offer benefits to elderly (aged 65 and up), blind, or disabled adults -- and to disabled or blind children, too -- who have sufficiently little in the way of income and assets. It can be received by folks who are also receiving Social Security retirement benefits or SSDI benefits.


SSDI, in a nutshell
The Social Security Disability Insurance program provides benefits to disabled people who have worked enough  to qualify as "insured." Most folks will need to have worked for 10 years, but there are lower thresholds for younger people, and a few other rules, too. For example, a 46-year-old person will typically need about six years of work. Some family members of qualifying disabled people may be able to receive benefits as well.

The disabled person will also have to meet the Social Security Administration's definition of disabled for this program. For starters, they will need to have a medical condition that prevents them from working and that's long-term, expected to last at least a year or to lead to death.

How much might you receive in benefits if you qualify? Well, it will depend on your earnings history, just like Social Security retirement benefits depend on them. The average monthly benefit was recently $1,165 (that's about $14,000 per year), but the SSA offers some online calculators that can help you get an idea of what you can expect.

The definition is strict, but many qualify. Source:

Here are some specific things the Social Security Administration considers as it reviews your application:

  • Whether you're currently working, and if you are, how much you're earning: The limits change every year or so. In 2016, for example, if you're disabled (but not blind) and earning more than $1,130 per month, on average, you won't qualify. The limit is $1,820 if you're blind.

  • The severity of your condition: The Social Security Administration's definition of disability requires you be significantly limited in terms of being able to do basic working activities (such as sitting, standing, walking, lifting, and remembering) for at least a year.

  • Whether your condition or impairment is on the list: The SSA will check to see if your condition is on their list of sufficiently severe conditions. (These include  chronic liver disease, recurrent arrhythmias, a heart transplant, various cancers, multiple sclerosis, and many others.) If it's not, they'll take a closer look at it to determine whether it qualifies.

  • Whether you can do the work you used to do: The SSA will want to determine whether your disability prevents you from doing your previous job. If it doesn't, then you probably won't qualify.

  • Whether you can do any other work: The SSA will take into account your age, skills, education, work experience, disability, and so on to determine whether you may be able to do some other kind of work. If it decides that you can do other work, you will likely not be deemed to have a qualifying disability.

The requirements for qualification are clearly stringent, but if you think you or a loved one might qualify, it's well worth looking into it more and perhaps applying.

Oh, and by the way, once you've received disability benefits for two year, you'll automatically  get Medicare coverage.


Your SSDI application
So how do you apply  for SSDI benefits? It's a bit more complicated than applying for retirement benefits, but it's not rocket science, either.

Many people can simply apply online. To do so, you need to be 18 or older, not currently receiving any Social Security benefits based on your own earnings record, and unable to work due to a disability expected to last at least a year or to lead to death. You must also not have been denied disability benefits within the past 60 days.

If you're able to apply online, the SSA lays out  how to do so in four steps:

  1. Start at the website, clicking into the Disability section.
  2. Fill out the Disability Benefit Application.
  3. Answer the questions on the Adult Disability Report.
  4. Mail or take the documents we ask for to your Social Security office.

Applying online offers advantages such as being able to do it when you want; being able to pause any time, saving your work and resuming filling it out later; and being able to more easily check on your application's status.

You can also start the application process online, by calling (800) 772-1213 between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m. Monday through Friday. Those who are deaf or hard of hearing can call TTY (800) 325-0778.

And of course you can also apply in person at your local Social Security office. It's smart to make an appointment first, to save yourself a lot of waiting time.

Will your application be approved?
Once you apply, the Social Security Administration will review  your application and will see whether you meet the various criteria. A state agency will likely consult with your doctors and health service providers you've used about your condition and treatments you've received. You may be asked to undergo a medical exam, too, possibly performed by your own doctor and paid for by Social Security.

If you're approved, you'll receive a letter telling you so and letting you know how much money you can expect to receive.

If you're denied, you'll also receive a letter, explaining why. You'll be able to appeal the decision, if you want.

Being disabled and unable to work is not fun, but for many such people, there is at least a little financial assistance available, from the Social Security Administration.