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The Social Security Definition of Disability

October 8, 2003

The Social Security Definition of Disability: Is it Consistent with a National Goal of Supporting Maximum Self Sufficiency?


A report by the Social Security Advisory Board, October 2003

In the Board’s January 2001 report, Charting the Future of Social Security’s Disability Programs: The Need for Fundamental Change, it raised the question of whether Social Security’s definition of disability was appropriately aligned with national disability policy as reflected, for example, in the Americans with Disabilities Act. This report looks at the background of the program and how it has changed, the growing difficulty of appropriately determining who can and cannot work, and the various attempts to build in work incentives. While recognizing that this is a large and important part of our national income security system, the Board concludes that the Nation must face up to the contradictions created by the existing definition of disability. The report briefly catalogs some of the alternative approaches that might, in some combination, be incorporated into a revised program while noting that any such changes must be made carefully and with due regard for the importance of this program to the lives of America’s disabled citizens and to its impact on other elements of national income security. The Board issued this report to focus attention on that issue, and and indicated its intent to do additional work in this area in the near future.