SSI and Social Security Disability

This article was produced by CLS, GHLA, NHLAA, and SLS.

SSI and Social Security Disability

What are SSI and Social Security disability?

SSI and Social Security disability are federal programs that help people who cannot work because of a disability. You are eligible if your disability

  • prevents you from working for a year or more, or
  • will cause you to die.

What kinds of disabilities qualify?

You will qualify if you have any of the following:

  • A physical condition that
    - makes it hard for you to walk, sit, stand, lift, or carry; or
    - causes you pain, tiredness, shortness of breath, or other serious symptoms that affect your ability to work.
  • A mental health condition that causes problems with
    - your memory, thinking, understanding, moods, or concentration; or
    - your ability to work with other people.

How do I apply for SSI or Social Security disability?

You should apply for both programs. You can apply

When should I apply?

Apply as soon as you become disabled. There is no deadline, but the sooner you apply, the sooner you could receive benefits. If your disability makes it hard for you to apply without help, ask SSA for help. Tell them about your disability and the kind of help you need. For example, you may need help

  • filling out forms,
  • getting documents to support your application, or
  • getting to the SSA office. SSA may be able to interview you at your home.

What happens after I submit my application?

Someone from SSA will interview you at the SSA office or by phone. The interview takes about an hour. SSA will mail you a decision within 3 to 5 months after your interview.

Tips for applying

To get ready to apply, read the Disability Starter Kit online at

Call every two months to check on your application.

If you want the application process to move as quickly as possible, you should do the following:

  • Apply online.
  • Be ready to meet with SSA.
  • Find all the documents and information that SSA may ask for.
  • Call and write SSA if you move or change your phone number.

Keep copies of all documents you give SSA. If you need money or benefits while SSA is deciding, apply to the Department of Social Services (DSS) for other kinds of aid while you wait, such as cash assistance, Medicaid, and food stamps. Call 2-1-1 for your local DSS address.

Tips for your application

  • Give complete information about your disability. Explain how your disability has changed your life. Be honest and don’t try to hide or downplay any problems. Describe things you did before that you can no longer do, such as chores, driving, being with others, etc.
  • Go to your medical appointments and follow your treatment plan. SSA may send you to a doctor. You must go to this appointment so that SSA can have current information about your health. You will not have to pay for the appointment.

    You can also give SSA reports about your disability from nurse practitioners, chiropractors, therapists, social workers, teachers, and other agencies, such as the DSS.
  • Describe your education. Put the last grade you completed. Many courses taken after high school are not really college classes.
  • Answer questions about your work history. List any problems you had at work because of your disability.

What if SSA denies my application?

SSA denies many new applications. If your application is denied or SSA says you are not disabled, you should appeal right away. Many people who appeal get approved for SSI or Social Security disability. You have 60 days to appeal.

How do I appeal?

If you file a Request for Reconsideration, SSA will look at your claim again, along with any new evidence. File your request online at or write a letter to your SSA office that says you still cannot work.

If SSA denies your Request for Reconsideration, ask for a hearing at

You have 60 days after the last denial to do this.

Should I get a lawyer to help me with my appeal?

Your chances of winning an appeal are much better if you have a lawyer.

Talk to a lawyer as soon as you file your appeal. You can hire a private lawyer or call Statewide Legal Services at 800-453-3320 for a referral to a legal aid program.

If you get a lawyer to represent you, it is always best to get a lawyer who handles appeals. Many cases are denied by the hearing judges, and it helps to have an attorney who will do an appeal.

How long do I have to wait for a hearing?

It takes about one year to get a hearing. SSA will mail you a notice with the date and time of the hearing at least 75 days before the hearing. If you miss your hearing, you may have to wait four months or longer for a new one.

What happens at the hearing?

An administrative law judge (ALJ) will look at the evidence you submitted to SSA about why you cannot work. To know what records SSA has, ask them to send you a CD with all of the records you submitted. If there is any new information or medical records about why you cannot work, send SSA copies of that information right away.

At your hearing, the ALJ may ask a medical or vocational expert to testify about your condition and your ability to work. You can also give the ALJ other information about your disability by

  • bringing witnesses who can testify about your disability; and
  • showing letters from doctors, co-workers, and family about your disability. Make sure you have asked your medical and mental health professionals for all records about your disability.

If the ALJ denies your application, you can

  • file a new application, or
  • appeal to the Appeals Council within 60 days of the decision.

Here is how to appeal to the Appeals Council:

  1. Fill out Request for Review of Hearing Decision/Order (
  2. Mail it to:
    Appeals Council, SSA/ODAR
    5107 Leesburg Pike
    Falls Church, VA 22041-3255
  3. Keep a copy for your records.

You can also get Form HA-520-U5 at

  • your local Social Security Administration office;
  • your local hearing office;
  • online at; or
  • by calling SSA toll-free at: 1-800-772-1213. It is not easy to get through by phone.

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