The shortest version of the disability definition is “unable to work.” Of course, it’s much more complicated than that. And you actually can be approved for disability while working, as long as the work is not “substantial.” Social Security considers 5 things in evaluating your claim. They are, #1-work, #2-severity, #3-on the list?, #4-usual work, #5-other work.

If you have a clearly severe condition, like paralysis, or terminal cancer, they use the 5 steps, but the decision process is quick and easy. It’s when your condition is not that obvious they go through the 5 step decision process in detail. Note that you must be unable to do both your usual work and other work to be approved.

This is the 5 step process in detail, as shown on the official website.

We use a five-step process to decide if you are disabled.

  1. Are you working?
    If you are working and your earnings average more than a certain amount each month, we generally will not consider you disabled. The amount changes each year. For the current figure, see the annual Update (Publication No. 05-10003). If you are not working, or your monthly earnings average the current amount or less, the state agency then looks at your medical condition.
  2. Is your medical condition “severe”?
    For the state agency to decide that you are disabled, your medical condition must significantly limit your ability to do basic work activities-such as walking, sitting and remembering-for at least one year. If your medical condition is not that severe, the state agency will not consider you disabled. If your condition is that severe, the state agency goes on to step three.
  3. Is your medical condition on the List of Impairments?
    The state agency has a List of Impairments that describes medical conditions that are considered so severe that they automatically mean that you are disabled as defined by law. If your condition (or combination of medical conditions) is not on this list, the state agency looks to see if your condition is as severe as a condition that is on the list. If the severity of your medical condition meets or equals that of a listed impairment, the state agency will decide that you are disabled. If it does not, the state agency goes on to step four.
  4. Can you do the work you did before?
    At this step, the state agency decides if your medical condition prevents you from being able to do the work you did before. If it does not, the state agency will decide that you are not disabled. If it does, the state agency goes on to step five.
  5. Can you do any other type of work?
    If you cannot do the work you did in the past, the state agency looks to see if you would be able to do other work. It evaluates your medical condition, your age, education, past work experience and any skills you may have that could be used to do other work. If you cannot do other work, the state agency will decide that you are disabled. If you can do other work, the state agency will decide that you are not disabled.