More than 3.4 million Americans over age 40 are legally blind or have low vision, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. These individuals may face many financial challenges, with costs including medical care, medication, in-home assistance and other accommodations. Fortunately, Social Security Disability benefits and special provisions may be available to those who meet the definition of statutory blindness.
The Social Security Administration considers an individual legally or statutorily blind if the individual’s better eye has a corrected visual acuity of 20/200 or worse. A visual field diameter of 20 degrees or less in the better eye also constitutes legal blindness. To qualify for SSD benefits, people who are legally blind must establish visual acuity or visual field diameter with accepted perimetry or visual field tests.
The SSA establishes distinct rules governing benefits eligibility for individuals with statutory blindness. These include:
- A higher substantial gainful activity threshold. Blind individuals can earn up to $1,800 per month in 2014 without losing eligibility for benefits.
- Different criteria for self-employed individuals. Typically, the SSA considers an individual’s hours and role within a business to decide whether the employment is SGA. For blind individuals, the SSA only considers monthly wages.
- Distinct rules for individuals older than 55 who perform less skilled work than they did before age 55. If these individuals earn monthly income exceeding the SGA threshold, benefits are suspended, rather than terminated. During any month in which earnings fall below SGA, benefits are awarded automatically.
- A “disability” A blind individual who is working can request a freeze if his or her earnings are reduced due to the blindness. The SSA will not consider the lower income when calculating SSD benefits. This allows the person to collect larger benefits in the future.
These incentives make it easier for blind individuals to work without risking the loss of current or future benefits. However, these incentives are not available to people who are considered disabled but not statutorily blind.
Other vision problems
Individuals who are not legally blind may still be eligible for benefits. The official SSA Blue Book of impairment listings includes a listing for visual efficiency. People with visual efficiency less than 20 percent or visual impairment values over 1.00 are considered disabled. These individuals can qualify for benefits without their ability to work being evaluated.
People who do not meet the definition of statutory blindness may also secure benefits by receiving a medical-vocational allowance. The SSA awards an allowance if low vision and other health conditions prevent an individual from performing gainful work. The SSA typically requires more extensive and convincing documentation to reach this determination.