Can You Work on Disability?

woman riding wheelchair near trees
by Advice Chaser
by Advice Chaser
woman riding wheelchair near trees

If you receive disability benefits, you can’t work. Right? Actually, that’s a common misconception. Work is vital for helping disabled people regain independence, feel a sense of belonging, and increase their income. For that reason, SSI and SSDI both have certain incentives to make it possible to work while receiving benefits.

To be clear, there are still limits on the amount you can make. It can be confusing to figure out how much you can work without losing benefits. To help make sense of it all, Advice Chaser will host a webinar on May 27 titled “Working and Maintaining Social Security Benefits.” Let’s learn a little about the incentives you might qualify for.

Disability Basics

What we often call “disability” actually refers to two different programs: SSDI (Social Security Disability Income) and SSI (Social Security Income). SSDI is based on your own contributions to Social Security during your working years, or your parents’ contributions. On the other hand, SSI is based on your income. In short, you need work credits to qualify for SSDI, while you need limited income and resources to qualify for SSI.

Some people can receive benefits from both programs. Most people who receive SSI or SSDI will also qualify for Medicare or Medicaid.

To qualify for either, you need to be disabled. This is defined as an inability to take part in substantial gainful activities (SGA). That makes it sound like you must be entirely unable to work to receive disability benefits. In reality, earning just a little may not be considered “substantial” and thus won’t disqualify you. Each program has its own income limits. But, in some cases, your earnings won’t count against your SGA limit.

Work Supports for Both SSI and SSDI Disability

Both SSI and SSDI have exceptions for certain circumstances. Here are a few available to participants of either program.

Subsidies and Special Conditions

If you are paid more than the value of your work, or if you receive special support at work because of your disability, that amount is deducted from your SGA earnings. For instance, if you perform half the amount of work an abled employee can perform, but are paid the same amount hourly, you are receiving a subsidy. Only the value your employer actually gets from your work is considered SGA earnings. Likewise, if a vocational rehabilitation agency helps you do the work, the value of their help is deducted from your SGA earnings.

Unsuccessful Work Attempt

Many disabled people want to try reentering the workplace to see if they are able. If that effort doesn’t succeed, though, you shouldn’t lose your benefits for trying. Thus an unsuccessful work attempt (UWA) does not count against you in most cases. A UWA is a return to SGA levels of earnings for under six months. If your disability prevented you from doing the work, or if you lost a support that you needed to do the work with your disability, you had a UWA. 

A disability comes with its own costs. If you need to spend money to make your work possible, because of your disability, that’s called an impairment-related work expense (IRWE). For instance, if you need hearing aids to participate in work conversations, but you had to pay for them yourself, you had an IRWE. IRWEs can be deducted from your income before calculating your SGA earnings.

Plan to Achieve Self-Support

Individuals on SSI normally can’t have much in savings. That can make it hard to achieve independence. To exempt your savings from the usual requirements, you need a plan to achieve self-support (PASS). You must make your plan in writing, spelling the details out as specifically as you can. What do you plan to do to support yourself? How much will the resources and training you need cost?

Ticket to Work

Ticket to Work is a program that connects SSI and SSDI recipients to employment networks. These networks provide training and connections that can help someone on disability move to full-time employment. The program usually lasts seven years and is free of charge.

Work Supports Only for SSDI Disability Recipients

Here are a few opportunities only for those receiving SSDI.

Trial Work Period

Not sure whether or not you can work, but afraid you’ll lose SSDI if you try? The SSDI program allows for a trial work period (TWP). Any month in which you exceed $910 in earnings, or 80 hours of self-employment work, is part of your TWP. You may have nine months of TWP, which don’t have to be consecutive, within a five-year period. But work you do in the twelve months after becoming disabled, and before receiving benefits, does not qualify as TWP. If you earn over the SGA limit at that time, it will make you ineligible for SSDI.

Extended Period of Eligibility

After you use up your nine TWP months, your extended period of eligibility begins. During this period, you earn benefits only for the months you do not exceed the SGA limit.

Continuation of Medicare Coverage

When you stop receiving benefits because of your earnings, you may still be eligible for Medicare. So long as you haven’t medically improved, you continue to qualify for Medicare for 93 months after your last TWP month. 

Work Supports Only for SSI Disability Recipients

If you receive SSI, you aren’t eligible for many of the work supports above. However, there are a few programs specific to SSI which you may qualify for.

Earned Income Exclusion

Not all income you earn counts against your SSI eligibility. The actual calculations are complex, but as little as half your income might actually count.

Student Earned Income Exclusion

If you’re a student, even more of your earned income can be excluded from SSI consideration—up to $1,930 a month and $7,770 a year.

Property Essential to Self-Support

Some property you own and use to support yourself doesn’t count against SSI. An example might be tools for your job or land you use to raise crops.

Medicaid While Working

Working doesn’t necessarily take away your Medicaid eligibility, even if you make too much for direct disability payments. Each state has its own threshold.

Learn More About Work Supports for Disability

This list of work incentives isn’t exhaustive. There is a baffling array of separate programs intended to help disability recipients work. Unfortunately, even learning what exists ends up being a job in itself. The upcoming webinar provides a free introduction to the possibilities. If you’re disabled, or assisting someone who is, you can’t miss this webinar. Sign up here and attend on May 25, at noon central time. Andy Hardwick, public affairs specialist with the Social Security Administration, will walk you through the available options and answer questions.

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