The Social Security Administration is one of the largest federal government agencies, and understanding how it assesses physical disability can be difficult. All applications for disability insurance claims (SSD claims) are initially reviewed by the Disability Determination Service agencies in each state, and all DDS agencies apply a five-step analysis in reaching a final decision.
The first step is to determine whether the applicant is financially eligible for benefits, that is, unable to engage in gainful employment. Anyone who is engaging in substantially gainful activity is usually denied without further question. The second stage is an inquiry into the nature and degree of the applicant's medical or physical disability. If the impairment is not permanent and total, or if it is not expected to be fatal, the application is also denied. If an application passes steps one and two, the file is next reviewed to determine whether the mental or physical condition satisfies the agency's written criteria for disability. If an application is denied at this step, it is reviewed to see if the applicant has capacity for any type of work. An applicant that satisfies the written criteria at step 3 is usually approved for an award of benefits.