May is Disability Insurance Awareness Month. This annual month of consumer outreach was founded by The Life and Health Insurance Foundation for Education, a nonprofit insurance information organization.

Disability Can Happen to Anyone

The nonprofit Council for Disability Awareness has compiled important statistics on its website that show how financially vulnerable we are as a society to sudden disability:

  • Forty-four percent of American families spend more money than they take in.
  • Sixty percent of us have no savings set aside for emergencies.
  • More than 60 percent of 2007 consumer bankruptcies involved medical issues.
  • Long-term disability work leaves average 2.5 years.
  • Over 20 percent of workers will experience periods of disability longer than five years.
  • Twelve percent of our population is considered disabled.

Social Security Disability Insurance

People think of disability insurance as something that is either part of an employment benefits package or privately purchased. Disability insurance — either short- or long-term — protects workers financially when they become disabled from working. While that is true, another important financial support program is available to most U.S. workers through the Social Security Disability program.

If someone says he or she is getting Social Security benefits, most would assume that person is getting the retirement benefits from the federal government we all expect and plan for. The typical American worker has always seen a small amount withheld from every paycheck to send to Uncle Sam to put aside for our collective retirement fund.

Many people are not aware that the money contributed to Social Security in this way also funds a disability insurance program for our benefit: Social Security Disability Insurance. SSDI is public disability insurance available to most workers who have pretty consistently worked over their lives and who face disabling conditions that keep them from working, and are expected to last at least a year or result in death.

The Council for Disability Awareness reports that at the end of March 2011, more than five percent of American workers were SSDI beneficiaries. And while SSDI is a helpful and important, its benefits are modest. For example, the average monthly SSDI benefit was $1,065 in June 2010, with benefit amounts slightly higher for men than for women.

No matter how modest the payments might be, however, SSDI benefits are a way for some to avoid slipping into poverty.

SSDI Eligibility

Eligibility requirements for SSDI are complicated. Basically, you have to have worked long enough and recently enough to qualify, and "have a medical condition that has prevented you from working or is expected to prevent you from working for at least 12 months or end in death."

The Social Security Administration applies a five-step process to its analysis of eligibility:

  • Are you working?
  • Is your condition severe?
  • Is your impairment on (or equal to) the SSA’s list of automatically disabling impairments?
  • Can you go back to your previous work?
  • Considering your medical condition, age, education level, experience and skills, is there other work available for you?

From the initial application, it is important to develop your SSA file with all relevant medical records. Be sure you get medical assessments of all your problems, including those that are psychological in nature.

Remember that if your initial application is denied, there are several more steps of review and appeal through the agency (including a hearing before an administrative law judge) and into federal court. Be careful not to miss deadlines for review.

If you have questions about applying for SSDI, talk to the Social Security Administration and an experienced SSDI attorney as soon as possible. A knowledgeable social security disability lawyer may be crucial to helping you present your case and securing your benefits.

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