Most of us know that public disability benefits are a thing that exists, and most of us know at least one person who is “on disability,” but in my daily conversations about my work, I often observe that people know very little about these benefits. So here’s a quick intro to disability benefits for the general public. I would encourage all of my friends to read this post for general knowledge even if you don’t see disability as a likely part of your life.

First, what is “disability”? When you hear someone say they are “on disability,” it doesn’t always mean the same thing, because the term means different things. Disability income generally comes from three sources, but “on disability” also includes a moneyless status. Disability benefits are available from worker’s compensation programs, private disability insurance policies, and Social Security programs, further subdivided into SSI, a poverty-based or means tested program, and Social Security Disability Insurance, or SSD, a benefit you pay into while working.

Worker’s Compensation is administered by a mix of state agencies and private insurance companies, and is paid for by an insurance payment employers make for each employee over time. Worker’s Comp is tied to your specific job, and will pay benefits when you are medically unable to work that specific job, but only for a limited period of time. Most people on Worker’s Comp are on it for a short time and then return to work, and those who become permanently disabled usually receive a lump-sum “settlement” concluding their lifetime benefits all at once. People who never return to work then tend to apply for Social Security. The standard of disability for Worker’s Comp is a percentage rating of “loss of use” of a particular body part or a percentage rating of your work limitations.

Alongside Worker’s Compensation, many employers sponsor private disability policies. Private policies usually have their own “standard of disability” unique to the policy, and pay the full amount of a worker’s usual income for a defined period of time, sometimes up to indefinitely, until they either return to work or collect Social Security, and if you’re out over a year most policies will require you to apply for social security. The usual standard for private disability is just being medically unable to do that particular job.

So finally we come to Social Security. The Social Security Administration administers two disability programs, Disability Insurance Benefits, which is tied to your earnings history, and Supplemental Security Income, which is not tied to work history, but is instead “means tested” and subject to draconian financial conditions (you have to be really poor by all measures). Both share the same standard of disability, which is complex, but can be summarized as: the inability to sustain competitive full-time work in any field due to a medical impairment that imposed limitations that interfere with your capability to work.

I think that where a lot of people get tripped up on this is the phrase “competitive full time work.” To he disabled, you don’t have to look disabled, and you don’t have to be so limited that you couldn’t do any imaginable work. You could, for example, be unable to work full-time outside the house, but be capable of part-time work, work with extreme accommodations, work from home, or even many kinds of self-employment. Part time work is not inherently disqualifying; the ability to work part time certainly isn’t, but if you earn above a certain amount you can still become ineligible for benefits despite being otherwise medically disabled.

So what does it mean to be unable to work full-time? Well, we will generally look only at unskilled work that you can walk into without skill or experience. It’s worth noting that people with specialized skills or training don’t become disabled as much, because employers value them enough to offer accommodations beyond the bare minimum. So Social Security will only consider skilled jobs if you have a background in skilled work, and can apply those skills to jobs within your medical capabilities. Full-time unskilled work generally requires the following: getting to work on time every day, with no more than 1 absence per month and never arriving significantly late or leaving early; sustaining work-like postures of sitting upright, standing, or walking for a full eight hours a day; staying on-task for 85% of the eight-hour day; interacting appropriately with coworkers and supervisors, as well as sometimes the public; using your hands to manipulate objects or operate a computer and phone; using your eyes to see what’s going on; remembering and following instructions without excessive need for instruction or unreasonable training; dealing with routine changes and stressors in the workplace; moving around in the workplace including things like stairs and carrying things; and often some physical exertion. Social Security will generally look for the “easiest” jobs available relative to your physical functional capacity; that is, jobs that require no skill and little instruction, and generally jobs that require very little physical effort.

It’s actually pretty easy to get knocked out of being able to work full-time. For example, a common disabling condition is back and neck problems. These conditions often make it impossible for the afflicted to get through a full day on their feet and sitting upright; usually they at least need a long break to lie down or sit in a recliner. That’s incompatible with unskilled full-time work, but those of us with skilled and professional jobs might be able to get away with essentially a midday nap, especially if we’re on salary and can modify our schedule at will. But for the unskilled, that’s disabling. Another example is being unable to stay on-task 85% of the time. This is a very common problem with mental impairments such as depression, anxiety, and ADHD. If you have a panic attack once a week that knocks you out for an hour, that will get you fired quickly, and is enough to find you disabled. If your depression causes you to slow down too much during the day and you can’t get everything done in the course of your shift, that is disabling. Also, people with mental illnesses often struggle to make it to work at all five days a week every week; depression often causes bad days where a person can’t even get out of bed.

There are many more ways to get knocked out of the workforce, and as you see most don’t result in someone “looking” disabled to an outside observer. It seems that a lot of people think if you are collecting disability you have to be in a wheelchair or bed bound or you must be a fraud, but that’s just not reality. Most people who come into the need for disability benefits genuinely meet the standard, and these stereotypes only make life harder for people in genuine need. Keep in mind that you probably don’t know someone’s whole story – their daily struggles and what they’ve been dealing with.

And besides, you may one day find yourself in that same situation – needing to apply for benefits yourself and facing a system that has been made unfairly skeptical because of stereotyping. If that happens to you, call me.