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Social Security Disability Law: A Beginner's Guide

A research guide regarding the statutes and regulations affecting Social Security disability claims, whether Social Security Disability Insurance Program (SSDI) or Supplemental Security Income Program (SSI)


Disability Benefits. United States Department of Health, Education, and Welfare. Yanker Poster Collection. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

Social Security disability benefits have taken on a consistently popular role in the press in recent years, and as such, it is no surprise that the Law Library of Congress has received many questions regarding the law in this area. In this post, we will provide a basic overview of the two disability-related Social Security benefit plans, and offer information about some of the print and electronic resources available to help researchers in this often-confusing area.

When an individual references “Social Security disability benefits,” he or she is often referring to two programs overseen by the Social Security Administration (SSA): (1) the Social Security Disability Insurance Program (SSDI) and (2) the Supplemental Security Income Program (SSI). While both programs utilize similar standards for establishing “disability,” and provide a certain amount of income replacement to disabled individuals, they differ in several other areas. Perhaps the most important of these differences is in eligibility. Generally, to be eligible for SSDI, an individual must not only prove that he or she is disabled, but also that he or she worked and contributed to the Social Security system for a certain period of time before claiming disability (often referred to as work credits). Eligibility for SSI does not depend on contribution requirements, but instead requires that a person be disabled, blind, or aged 65 or older, and “have low income and few resources [PDF]”. Additionally, the two programs differ in how the monthly benefit is determined—for SSDI, the calculation focuses on and can vary depending on the individual’s earnings history, while the SSI benefit is “based on need [PDF]” . For a more detailed explanation of the difference between the two programs, please review the SSA’s own comparison chart [PDF].