Social Security uses a Five Step Process:
Step 1: Are You Working Now?
Are you engaged in "SGA" - substantial gainful activity - meaning you are earning $1040.00 per month gross?
If YES, you generally don't qualify. See our discussion of unemployment
If NO, go to Step 2.
Step 2: Do you have a Severe Medically Determinable Impairment("MDI")?
"Severe" means that your condition must interfere with basic work-related activities.
"Medically Determinable Impairment" means your condition must be established by objective medical evidence, usually medical records from doctors, or the result of consultative examinations. (Though testimony from nonmedical sources - yourself, friends, family, teachers, employers - may help establish the severity of the impairment.)
Step 3: Do you meet or equal a "listing?"
Certain disabilities that meet the criteria of the SSA's List of Disabling Conditions will qualify for disability without going further. These are pretty severe conditions and may be hard to establish.
Step 4: Are you able to do your Past Relevant Work ("PRW")?
First, we determine your Residual Functional Capacity ("RFC") which is a detailed listing of what you can do in spite of your physical and mental limitations.
- Physically we will try to determine how much you can exert yourself for various work-related activities (such as sitting, standing, walking, lifting, carrying, pushing, pulling); do manipulative and postural activities (such as reaching, handling large objects, using your fingers, feeling, stooping, balancing, climbing stairs or ladders, kneeling, crouching, crawling); Tolerate certain environmental conditions (such as temperature extremes, wetness, humidity, noise, hazardous working conditions like moving machinery or heights, dust, fumes, odors, gases, poor ventilation, vibrations); see, hear, and speak.
- Mentally we will determine if you can maintain concentration and attention at work; understand, remember and carry out instructions; respond appropriately to supervisors, co-workers, and usual work situations, and cope with changes in the work setting.
Second, we look at the work you have done in the last 15 years, that involved significant mental and physical activities done for pay or profit; this is your Past Relevant Work or "PRW."
Third, we decide if you can still do Past Relevant Work given your Residual Functional Capacity.
If YES, you are not disabled.
If NO, go on to step 5.
Step 5: Can you do any other type of work?
We will look at your age, experience, education, and training as well as your RFC, and decide if there are any jobs in the national economy that you could perform. You may, for example, have a skill that could be transferred to a new type of job. Even if those jobs are hard to find or pay poorly, if you can do the work you're not disabled.
You will be classified by exertion level: can you do medium, light or sedentary work? Can you do any work at all? Will your conditions preclude employment due to absences or excessive accommodation requirements? Once we determine there are no jobs, you are disabled.
Depending on your age, education, and RFC there is a series of tables (called "Grids") that will help decide what level of job retraining might apply.