According to the report for the 2015 National Health Interview Survey, 23.7 million American Adults age 18 and older reported experiencing vision loss.
The Social Security Administration (SSA) considers “legal” or “statutory” blindness as a qualified disability.
Legally blind individuals include people who have been blind since birth in addition to those that have experienced severe vision loss due to conditions like glaucoma, retinopathy, and traumatic injury, among others.
In fact, the blind can qualify for disability and still continue to work while receiving monthly benefits, provided they meet all SSA requirements.
The SSA Awards Vision Loss Differently
Those receiving disability benefits for vision loss have some different financial limits than those receiving benefits for other reasons. Claimants are blind can earn more than disabled workers who aren’t blind and keep their disability benefits.
The Social Security Administration (SSA) has a set earnings amount that is called substantial gainful activity (SGA). As of 2020, that is $1,260 per month for those who are disabled but aren’t blind. For those who are blind, the SGA limit is $2,110 per month.
That means that after you have completed your trial work period, you can earn as much as the SGA and not lose your monthly disability benefits. The earnings limit usually changes from one year to the next and those figures are based on the cost of living and inflation.
If someone who is blind receives disability benefits and he or she is self-employed, the time spent working in his or her business isn’t evaluated the same as it is for those who do not have vision loss.
Those who aren’t blind cannot work more than 45 hours per month for their business in most cases and still receive disability benefits. A blind individual can work more and put in more hours for his or her business and still receive disability benefits just so long as his or her net profit averages the SGA or less. So, as an example, you can work 80 hours per month while you are blind, but if your net profit doesn’t exceed $2,040 per month, you will continue receiving disability benefits.
The Financial Costs of Blindness
People born blind usually learn to live and thrive in a world dominated by sighted individuals, but they still experience ongoing “adaptive living” expenses as working adults.
These costs include transportation fees, home modifications, and expensive technologies that allow the blind to live independently and perform essential job duties.
Even the expense of a guide dog may be outside the grasp of a disabled worker. According to the Guide Dog Foundation, the cost of raising and training a single service animal is about $50,000.
While some organizations provide dogs free of charge to the blind, these groups have limited resources and budgets. This means blind workers may wait months or years for a guide animal unless they’re able to afford to pay for training their own.
For people who lose their sight later in life, the costs of blindness include not only adaptive expenses like those mentioned above, but also astronomical medical bills.
Patients and doctors frequently do all they can to retain or improve sight, using surgical procedure, medications, and other treatment methods. Bills add up quickly, particularly for patients that have lost their job and their health insurance along with it.
A decrease in average earnings or total loss of income from work after vision loss is common too, with workers often being unable to continue employment in their traditional field.
A production worker who loses his sight, for example, cannot return to the production floor after a medical leave. Instead, he must learn new skills and eventually find a new job.
Making ends meet in the mean time only adds stress to an already stressful life transition. Disability benefits can provide financial support and access to occupational rehabilitation, in which workers are trained for new professions.
Disability benefits can additionally be an ongoing source of financial support for blind workers, allowing them to continue employment while simultaneously receiving monthly disability payments.
Medically Qualifying for Disability Benefits through the Blue Book Listing
The SSA maintains standard listings that outline what constitutes disability with various health conditions. These listings appear in a manual that’s call the “Blue Book.”
The Blue Book is accessible online for you and your doctor to consult. Your doctor can help you understand the complex medical language and the SSA’s severity level requirements for qualifying for disability with blindness or vision loss.
SSA disability examiners are the people who review claims for benefits. They use the listing in the Blue Book to compare with your medical records to determine eligibility for benefits.
To qualify for disability benefits, your vision loss or blindness must meet one of the following listings:
- Loss of central visual acuity (2.02) – this listing covers loss in your central field of vision and requires you see no better than 20/200 in your better eye.
- Contraction of the visual field in the better eye (2.03) – you can qualify under this listing if you have a shrinking field of vision. Your doctor must measure your vision with specific tests and must record what you’re able to see when you’re focusing on a fixed point. This listing requires reports of your visual field, which is the distance in all directions from the fixed point on which you’re focused. That diameter must be no greater than 20 to 30 degrees. In others words, your visual field must be very narrow.
- Loss of visual efficiency, or visual impairment (2.04) – this listing covers issues that cause blurry or unfocused vision or an absence of vision (total blindness). To qualify, you must have vision in your better eye that is no greater than 20/200 when wearing corrective lenses.
When Older Than 55
If you are blind and receive disability and you are older than 55, the determination rules that are used by the SSA aren’t the same ones that are used for those who aren’t blind.
If a claimant is older than 55, even if their earnings are in excess of $2,040 per month the benefits are only suspended and not terminated if the work that you do requires a lower level of ability and skill than the work you did before you were approved for disability benefits.
If you are blind, you should familiarize yourself with the different limits for those who are visually impaired and receiving disability benefits. You may be able to earn more than you initially believe and continue receiving disability benefits.
You just need to keep track of your earnings, and maintain thorough records and receipts, so you can properly deduct any work-related expenses if you are self-employed.
Those who are self-employed can deduct business expenses as well as any expenses that they must have because of their disability. These expenses may include prescriptions, medical care, medical devices, and special tools, equipment or software that you need to be able to do the job. As an example, the cost of documents written in braille or special programs that are voice activated so you can send messages and prepare documents.
So, you may earn more than the SGA of $2,040 per month, but after the deductions, you may earn less than the SGA and still qualify for disability benefits. That is why accurate, detailed record keeping is necessity, so you can make sure you continue to receive disability benefits if you are eligible to do so.
Keep all your receipts, so you can provide them to the SSA when you upload your records that show your earnings, work activity, and your associated costs and expenses.
The Trial Work Period
If you are blind and receiving disability benefits, you may want to try to return to work at some point. Every 60 months, disabled workers have a 9-month trial work period.
Those 9 months – which don’t have to be consecutive – allow a disabled individual to determine if he or she is capable of earning a living again. The idea of a trial work period is to allow you and the SSA to determine if your condition has improved enough for you to return to work.
During the trial period, you must report your earnings, work activity, and your expenses to the SSA. During this time, your disability benefits are not in jeopardy.
Even after your 9-month trial work period has expired, you can still receive disability benefits for any month that you do not earn more than the SGA amount of $2,040. If you earn more than the maximum SGA, you will not receive your disability benefits that month.
While you could be successful in your return to work, your medical problems could worsen, and you may have to stop working again. If that happens, within 5 years of returning to the workforce you are eligible for what is called expedited reinstatement.
During that time, you aren’t required to reapply for disability benefits, and you don’t have to wait for review of your medical condition to have your benefits reinstated.
Remember, you only have 9 trial months in any 60-month timeframe, so you don’t want to inadvertently use those months up before you intend to do so. If you return to work and you don’t earn more than the SGA, you will continue receiving your disability benefits.
It is important to keep track of all your expenses and costs associated with your ability to work so that can be deducted before your actual earnings are determined.
Medically Qualifying for Disability through an RFC Analysis
The SSA reviews blindness or severe vision loss under strict rules of medical eligibility. To prove you’re disabled without meeting a listing means you must show your decreased vision or blindness prevents you from working in any job.
This is done through a “residual functional capacity” analysis or RFC. In an RFC, the SSA looks at your functional limitations, like your inability to drive, read, shop for food, or get around in unfamiliar locations.
These limitations in your everyday life help the SSA understand how you’d be limited in performing specific kinds of job duties.
During an RFC, the SSA also looks at your age, job skills, and education level. As a person with severe vision loss that doesn’t meet a Blue Book listing, you’re more likely to be approved through an RFC analysis under certain circumstances:
- If you have a medical condition that causes progressive vision loss. While your vision may not meet a disability listing now, the SSA can see from your diagnosis that your vision will continue to worsen, eventually reaching the severity level noted in the Blue Book.
- If you are older and have a lower level of education or limited transferable job skills.
Qualifying through an RFC means you’re granted a medical vocational allowance. This essentially means the SSA believes you cannot work in any job due to your functional limitations.
How to Apply for Benefits with Blindness
You can apply for Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) online via the SSA’s website or you can submit your application at your local SSA office.
If you apply for Supplemental Security Income (SSI) however, you must do so through an interview process with an SSA representative and this is usually done at the local office.
No matter how you apply or which program you’re applying for, you will need to have a lot of information readily available, including:
- Your work history and details of your education and job training
- Medical records or at least accurate contact information for all your healthcare providers, including your primary care doctor, specialists, and therapists or life skills educators
- Financial records, including bank statements, paystubs, and information on any other forms of benefits you currently receive
Your medical documentation is essential to proving your disability whether you qualify under a disability listing or through an RFC.
Specific records that the SSA requires for visually impaired and blind applicants may include:
- Snellen method or similar visual acuity tests: measures how well a patient can see objects based on distance and location in relation to the central field of vision
- Automated static threshold perimetry or kinetic perimetry exams: document shrinking or contraction of the central field vision over time
- Humphrey Field Analyzer visual field tests: documents central and peripheral vision when a patient is focused on a fixed point
Your doctor can help you understand whether your medical records meet the SSA’s requirements. He or she can also determine any gaps in your medical documentation and fill in those gaps by completing evaluations according to SSA documentation standards.
Talk to a Social Security Attorney Today
If you are blind and receive disability benefits, but you are thinking of returning to the workforce and you are interested in using your 9-month trial work period, you should consult with a disability attorney who handles such cases in your area.
With the help of a lawyer, you can determine the best way to proceed and figure out what is best for your specific needs. Schedule a free case review by completing the Free Case Evaluation Form on this page. A law office who represents disabled workers in your area will then be in contact with you to discuss your situation.