Enough Is Enough: Determining When a Health Condition is a Disability

Motorized Wheelchair

You know the reality. Your health is impacting your ability to live life as you once did. Your capacity to work, to be productive, has deteriorated. And that’s a frightening reality, especially when you have yourself and your family to support.

Being formally and legally declared “disabled” can be a difficult step to take. There are not only the legal hurdles to clear, but there’s also the simple reality that life will change, particularly if your health requires you to stop working.

Seeking formal, legal status as a person with a disability, however, can be a tremendous benefit. You’ll enjoy specific legal protections under the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA). And you’re also likely going to be entitled to special financial and social resources to help meet your needs and support your quality of life.

No matter what the particulars of your condition may be, whether your illnesses are physical or mental, they’re interfering with your ability to function, both at work and home. By when does a health condition become a full-fledged disability? Here’s what you need to know.

A Common Problem

The simple fact is that stigmas surrounding disability persist, and these have led to a lot of concealment, a lot of silence. So you might think that disabilities are relatively rare.

In reality, however, the number of persons living with disabilities is far higher than you might think. It’s currently estimated that 1 in 3 adults will become disabled before they reach full retirement age.

And the causes of disability are quite varied. Common musculoskeletal ailments can easily result in disability due not only to the sometimes intense fatigue and pain they cause but also due to the loss of mobility characteristic of these conditions. Arthritis, for example, is one of the leading causes of disability in the US.

Cognitive Impairments and Mental Illnesses

Disability doesn’t occur only as a result of physical injury or illness, however. Cognitive impairments and mental illnesses are common forms of disability.

The Social Security Administration (SSA), for example, has recently added early-onset Alzheimers and other forms of dementia to its list of “disabling conditions.” This addition speeds the process for sufferers and caregivers to qualify for benefits and resources under the auspices of the SSA.

Mental illnesses, likewise, can frequently result in disability. Indeed, disability prevalence rates for most conditions are as high as those for physical illnesses and injuries. Depression, for instance, impacts an estimated 264 million people worldwide and is among the leading causes of lost productivity and missed workdays.

Alcohol and Substance Use Disorders (AUD/SUD)

“Disability” is often thought of as relating to physical illness or injury. The image of people using wheelchairs or crutches often springs to mind when disability is discussed. It is frequently assumed that “disability” refers to those who have trouble moving around, those who have trouble speaking or seeing or hearing. To be disabled, it is often presumed, is to need help with even the simpler functions of daily life, from driving to opening doors to lifting or carrying light boxes. It’s often assumed that disability means that people need help simply caring for themselves.

But disability can also occur because ordinary activities that adults routinely engage in have spiraled beyond the individual’s control. Routine binge drinking, for instance, seems to be a rite of passage in the heady lives of college students.

Alcohol abuse, especially when it occurs at a young age, while the brain is still forming, can have profound and enduring neurological impacts. And alcohol-related brain damage can manifest at virtually any point in the lifespan, resulting in brain shrinkage and an increased risk of alcohol-related dementia.

The Legal Status of Disability

As we can see, there are many conditions, physical, cognitive, and psychiatric, that can give rise to disability. Regardless of the exact nature of your diagnosis, however, it’s not always easy to qualify for health coverage or social security disability income (SSDI).

To do this, you first have to meet the SSA’s “strict definition of disability.” That typically includes being able to prove that you have been diagnosed with one of the illnesses or injuries identified by the SSA as a “disabling condition.”

You’ll also need to show that your condition is likely to persist for at least 12 months or to be permanent. And you’ll need to prove that the condition limits or prevents you from doing your current job effectively or from performing any other kind of work.

If it turns out that you can do some work, though, you may still qualify, provided you don’t earn more than $1000 per month. However, your SSDI benefits may be reduced, based on your monthly income.

The Takeaway

Living with a disability is not generally something we enjoy talking about at the dinner table. But millions upon millions of people worldwide are doing it every single day. The causes of disability are numerous, but that does not mean that disability has to put a limit on your quality of life. It is possible to live a long and happy life with a disability. The key, though, is to understand your rights and to ensure that you receive the benefits you are entitled to. There are resources out there to help you live your best life, but accessing them often begins with understanding what, precisely, qualifies as a disability.

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Brooke Faulkner is a writer, professional ponderer, and proud momma of two from the Pacific Northwest. When she's not at her desk, she's likely to be found zipping around on her old ATV. You can follow her on LinkedIn.

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