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What Is Disability?

Understanding Disability Benefits: SSDI and SSI

By Kimberly Read & Jonathan A. Abbott

Updated July 02, 2014

Disability is a broad term that compares actual ability to normal functioning. It is most often used to refer to an impairment, be it physical (paralysis), sensory (blindness), cognitive (dementia), intellectual (mental retardation) or mental health (bipolar disorder). A person may be considered disabled if he or she has a condition that affects the ability to function without assistance at a level needed to maintain well-being.

The word disability is also used to refer to a number of federal and state programs that provide assistance to those who are disabled. The two most common programs that fall under the umbrella of disability are Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) and Supplemental Security Income (SSI). Medicare and Medicaid are also components of these programs.

Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI)
During the course of our lives most of us buy insurance against life’s dangers -- fires, car crashes, even death. What you may not know is that you have paid for disability insurance, too. Think of it as insurance for when your body wears out too early (Abbott).

Out of almost everyone’s paycheck money is deducted for “FICA” which is a fancy name for Social Security. Part of that money, about 3 cents in every FICA tax dollar, goes for Social Security Disability Insurance. Notice that last word -- insurance. It is something you paid for; insurance for when you can’t work easily or at all anymore because of medical problems. SSDI is paid to people who have worked long enough, recently enough -- generally, half of the preceding 10 years. (Abbott).

Supplemental Security Income (SSI)
SSI is paid to people with little or no income and very few assets, who may or may not have ever worked. SSI benefits are funded by general federal taxes most of us pay (Abbott).

Medicare is federally-funded health insurance for those over age 65; it is a benefit of Social Security. It is also available to individuals who have been on SSDI for 24 months. Immediate eligibility is available for some special circumstances, but usually not for mental health disabilities. For those eligible for Medicare, a monthly premium will be withheld from your monthly SSDI check.

Medicaid is health insurance available for those on SSI. It is managed by your state and jointly funded by the federal and state governments.

Understanding Disability Benefits – The Series

  1. I Can’t Hold a Job! What Do I Do? – Introduction
  2. What is Disability?
  3. Do I Qualify for Disability?
  4. Is Bipolar Disorder a Qualified Condition for Disability?
  5. How Do I Start My Disability Application?
  6. What Information and Paperwork Do I Need?
  7. What Happens with My Application?
  8. How Long Will It Take to Get Benefits?
  9. What Benefits Will I Get?
  10. Who Can Help Me?

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