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Social Security Disability Insurance Overview (SSDI)

What is SSDI?

Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) is a payroll tax-funded, federal insurance program. A portion of the FICA taxes you pay are set aside for SSDI (as well as Social Security Retirement and Medicare). SSDI, which was established in 1954, is designed to provide you with income if you are unable to work due to a disability or until your condition improves, and guarantees income if your condition does not improve. Then once you meet your retirement age – 65 or older – you move from SSDI to Social Security retirement income.

The Social Security Administration’s (SSA) definition of disability is different than other programs you may come into contact with through your employer or private insurance. The SSA pays only for total disability. No benefits are payable for partial disability or for short-term disability.

Eligibility for SSDI is based on your inability to work. You are generally considered disabled by the SSA if:

  • You cannot do work that you did previously;
  • It is determined that you cannot adjust to other work because of your medical condition(s); and
  • Your disability has lasted or is expected to last for at least one year or result in death.


According to the SSA, studies show that a 20-year-old worker has a 3-in-10 chance of becoming disabled before reaching retirement age.

Current State of SSDI

Only a small percentage of the American population with disabilities will qualify for SSDI. Approximately 3.3 million people are expected to apply for SSDI in fiscal year 2010, but many of these will be turned down. However, the number of people applying for and qualifying for SSDI has increased dramatically in recent years and will continue to do so in the near future.

A number of factors have created a large backlog in the processing of SSDI applications. For example, the average age among SSDI recipients is 52. Also, over the years new types of disabilities, such as mental disabilities, have been acknowledged by the SSA and this has increased the number of people who qualify. In addition, SSA employees are retiring in large numbers and are not being replaced due to federal funding shortfalls.

The result is that both receiving and administering SSDI benefits has become extremely difficult for both those who need SSDI benefits and for the SSA. Currently, more than 700,000 people are backlogged at the SSDI hearing level alone. In 2009, the wait time at the hearing level was 491 days. To see the average wait time in your area, check out the disability backlog in your home state. Though the SSA is working hard to cut through the backlog, improve its methods and add staff, those with disabilities who go at it alone will continue to face a complex and intimidating process – and long delays in obtaining the SSDI benefits they deserve.

SSDI Fast Facts

Year Established:


Number of Employees:

65,000 SSA employees (FY 2009)

SSDI Budget:

$109 Billion

SSDI Applicants Backlog: (2010)

Level 1:


Level 2:


Level 3:


Level 4:




Average SSA wait time across all levels:

850+ days

Average Monthly SSDI Benefit (2010):