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Attending school and getting SSA Disability?

One of most frequent questions we get one our blog is, “What additional activities can I perform while receivingSupplemental Security Income (SSI) or Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) benefits?” Many claimants do not want to jeopardize their payments but they also do not want to sit around day idle all day.

This is a great question and volunteering, attending school or working part-time sounds like a good idea, especially if the severity of your condition varies and you have “good days and bad days,” but this question goes to the fundamental definition of disability according to the Social Security Administration: if you can perform too much activity (whether it is school, volunteer work or part-time work) are you really disabled?

What is disabled according to the SSA?

The Social Security Administration considers you disabled if you do not have the capability to perform what they call “substantial gainful activity” for at least 12 continuous months due to a severe mental or physical health condition.

So is attending school considered “substantial gainful activity”?

We know the SSA considers “work” substantial gainful activity if you are making too much money or working too many hours. If you perform substantial gainful activity and you are receiving SSDI or SSI eventually your benefits may be terminated (the SSA does have several programs which allow claimants to attempt to return to work for a specific time period without losing benefits). We will consider both issues of substantial gainful activity with regards to attending school

Is attending school “gainful” work?

Gainful work is work that produces an income of higher than a specific monthly amount. In2012, the amount a non-blind claimant can make is $1,010 per month and the monthly SGA amount for statutorily blind individual for 2012 $1,690. Attending school does not generate a profit so it would pass the first test- it is not gainful.

Is attending school “substantial” work?

Now we move to the second test - is attending school substantial? What is substantial work? The SSA will evaluate the amount of time that a claimant attends school as well as the amount of physical and mental effort which is expended.

For example, if you are attending 15 hours of class at a large University and studying an additional 15 hours each week the SSA may argue that the amount of physical and mental exertion needed to perform these activities is comparable to what it would take to maintain a job. For example, if you can walk miles around campus, carry a heavy backpack, sit focused for hours at a time in class and work in groups with others to complete tasks this may be similar to the skills needed to work.

Let’s examine another scenario. What if you are taking classes online a few hours per day and laying you your bed to study? You are not walking around campus, interacting with other students or carrying a heavy backpack all day. It may be possible to prove that the effort this type of schooling takes is not comparable to full-time employment. The case can also be made that these school activities are not substantial or comparable to work if your class schedule is flexible and you are able to “take classes” only on the days that you are feeling well.

What’s the Bottom Line?

When the Social Security Administration is evaluating your activities, such as attending school, they are evaluating not only your earnings but also whether or not the exertion (either mental or physical) is comparable to work. Keep in mind, your work may be substantial even if it is done on a part-time basis or if you do less, get paid less, or have less responsibility than when you worked before.
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