Social Security Advisory Board has asked whether the Social Security disability definition should be changed in some fundamental way. The Disability Policy Panel studied this question at length and reached the following conclusions:

Programs for people with disabilities should use definitions of disability as eligibility criteria that match the purpose of the program. A single, one-size-fits-all definition would not suit the varied needs of the highly diverse population of people with disabilities, nor would it match the particular purposes of different programs.

If the purpose of the program is to establish civil rights protections, a broad definition of disability, such as in the ADA is used: “Disability means … a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities, a record of such an impairment, or being regarded as having such an impairment.”

If the purpose is to define eligibility for vocational rehabilitation, then the legal definition of eligibility is based on need for and likelihood of benefiting from such services.

Programs that provide personal assistance or long-term care services generally define eligibility in terms of the need for those particular services, such as need for assistance with activities of daily living.

Earnings-replacement insurance programs that are designed to replace income from employment all use a definition of disability based on loss of ability to work. This is true in private disability insurance, as well as in public programs. The wage-replacement benefits of disability insurance are not designed to pay for the added expenses associated with disability – such as personal assistance or vocational rehabilitation. Although these services might be needed, wage replacement benefits are designed to help pay everyday living expenses – such as food, housing, and utilities – when wages are lost.

The Social Security test of work disability is very strict. A less strict test of inability to work would benefit people with partial disabilities and it would cost more.

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