Disability can mean different things in different contexts. In everyday speech, of course, it generally refers to a mental or physical condition that impairs an individual’s ability to engage in normal activity. For purposes of Social Security disability benefits qualification, though, disability has a more precise definition.

The definition of disability in the context of Social Security disability benefits is, in one sense, fairly straightforward. According to the Social Security Administration, it means an inability to engage in “substantial gainful activity” due to a medically-determinable physical or mental impairment which is either expected to end in death or to last for a continuous period of at least one year. In 2016, substantial gainful activity is generally the ability to earn more than $1,130 per month. Those who are able to earn more than that usually aren’t considered disabled. 

Substantial gainful activity involves a bit more than just the ability to earn more than a certain amount of money, though. The work must be substantial, as in it must involve significant physical and/or mental activities, but it does not have to be full-time work. It must also be work performed for pay/profit, or at least intended for profit.

For claimants who are self-employed, there is a separate set of criteria used to determine substantial gainful activity. The agency uses three separate tests to determine whether self-employment work activity is substantial gainful activity. In our next post, we’ll briefly look at these tests and some of the other requirements for SSD qualification.


Social Security Administration, “How Do We Define Disability?” Accessed April 21, 2016.

Social Security Administration, “Disability Planner: How We Decide If You Are Disabled,” Accessed April 21, 2016.