As a social security retirement income specialist, one of the areas I end up having to address on a surprisingly regular basis is social security disability income (SSDI) benefits. I have blogged on this topic previously but with this October being "National Disability Employment Awareness Month" I thought it would be worthwhile to highlight some of the little known programs and benefits available through the social security disability system.
Before I begin I think it's important to state that the social security disability program is probably the most misunderstood program in the social security system. There is often a perception that SSDI recipients have never worked and are taking advantage of the system for minor impairments, if not by outright fraud. Certainly there have been issues regarding fraudulent benefits, similar to those experienced by commercial disability insurance carriers, but for the most part SSDI claims are being paid to worthy and eligible beneficiaries.
In order to even apply for SSDI benefits an applicant must have worked enough to have paid into the system and to be considered "insured" under the SSDI definition. If you have no work history then you will not qualify for any benefits.
In addition, social security has some of the strictest requirements in the world in order to qualify for benefits. These requirements are typically much more demanding as compared to commercial disability insurance programs. In general, to qualify for SSDI you must have an impairment that will last one year or more, or result in death, and you must also be unable to perform any substantial work.
As a result, approved recipients of SSDI are among the most severely impaired individuals in the country and greatly depend on their benefits. In many cases, their SSDI checks are a lifeline preventing them from slipping into poverty.
However, not all disabled recipients will remain on SSDI nor do they wish to do so. They would often prefer to recover enough to get back to work and perhaps earn more money doing meaningful and enjoyable work. As such, social security offers incentive programs to give those SSDI recipients who are able an opportunity to return to work. Some of these incentives include continued cash benefits for a period of time while they work, continued Medicare and Medicaid coverage, and assistance with education, training and rehabilitation to start a new line of work.
Through a program called "Ticket to Work", social security gives participants a "ticket" to go back to work while continuing to receive SSDI benefits. This program is both free and voluntary and gives access to an employment network, which offers assistance with job searches and placement, and vocational rehabilitation and training.
"Ticket to Work" has been a valuable and effective program at social security. It has provided a mechanism for recipients of SSDI to exit the SSDI program and return to meaningful work which not only provides for a higher income but also the dignity and emotional benefits derived from being employed and making a contribution to society.
SSDI is not simply just another entitlement program. It's sophisticated design and structure also provides for affordable and manageable exit strategies even after benefits commence. Although it is extremely difficult to qualify for benefits, once approved SSDI also offers mechanisms to leave the program and return to a more normal and productive life.
Ash Ahluwalia, NSSA, CCSCA, MBA