What Does “Disabled” mean?

Like many words in the English language, there are almost as many meanings as there are people using it. There is also a difference between the generic word, “disabled, ” meaning unable to do something and the term of art “disabled” as used by disability benefits programs.

It’s important for you to know what the definitions of “disability” are for any plan you are applying for. The definition of disability is the measuring stick that the insurance company or Social Security uses to determine whether or not you are disabled enough to qualify for benefits. Trying to prove you’re disabled without knowing what the standard for measuring disability is leaves too much of the claim process to luck or chance.

Disabled is usually short-hand for “Totally Disabled” – Most people use the term “disabled” to mean “unable to work”, meaning “totally” unable to work.

Totally Disabled - Insurance companies and the Social Security Administration use the term “Totally disabled.” Both, however, apply specific definitions to the term:

  • For purposes of Social Security, the definition of “totally disabled” means that:
    • You have a physical or mental health condition which is expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months or to result in death, and
    • Because of that medical condition, you must be unable to perform your job and any job for which you are qualified based on your age, education and work experience.
  • For the purposes of most disability insurance plans, “totally disabled” means:      
    • The inability to perform the material duties of your regular occupation.
    • After the first two years of disability it usually switches to:
      • The inability to perform the material duties of any occupation for which you are reasonably suited by education, training or experience.
  • Other programs such as Short Term Disability and State Mandated Disability plans use slightly different definitions.

Although Social Security lists specific lab readings and other criteria in their Listing of Impairments, both they and the insurance industry are more concerned with your symptoms than your diagnosis. They want to know what is it about your condition that prevents you from working?

Permanently disabled is not used often in connection with disability programs. Other than Social Security’s requirement of lasting at least one year, benefit plans are more concerned with how total the disability is not how long it will last.

However, the term “permanently disabled” is occasionally used in some pension plans as the grounds for a disability retirement designation. To be honest, to say someone is permanently disabled is simply a prediction that may or may not be true. No disability plan makes you promise never to work again, if you later become able to.

Partially Disabled comes into play most frequently with disability insurance plans, both individual Disability Income and group Long Term Disability. A proportionate benefit helps make up for lost income when a person is only able to work part-time due to their medical condition.


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