The Social Security Administration considers people with total vision loss disabled. These people will receive benefits if they meet non-medical criteria when applying for SSD benefits. Individuals with limited remaining vision may still meet the definition of blindness or otherwise qualify for benefits. The SSA may consider the following conditions disabling:
- Statutory blindness. If corrected vision in the better eye is 20/200 or less, the individual is considered legally blind. Visual field contraction to an angle of 20 degrees or less in the better eye also constitutes statutory blindness.
- Poor visual efficiency. The SSA includes visual efficiency as a recognized impairment in its book Disability Evaluation Under Social Security. Efficiency less than 20 percent is automatically considered disabling, as is a visual impairment value greater than 1.00.
- Low vision. People who do not meet the above criteria can still qualify for benefits through a medical-vocational allowance. The SSA will evaluate the person’s ability to work despite the vision impairment before awarding benefits.
Individuals who are considered legally blind qualify for special programs and provisions. Individuals with other visual impairments are not eligible unless their conditions worsen into statutory blindness.
Earnings and work programs
Individuals with statutory blindness can earn greater monthly income without losing eligibility for SSD benefits. For 2014, the monthly earnings limit is $1,800, compared to $1,070 for other applicants. When considering blindness and disability, the SSA also lifts hourly work restrictions for self-employed individuals. In contrast, self-employed people with other disabilities cannot receive benefits if they work over 80 hours per month.
If blind individuals start working enough to exceed the monthly income limit, they are treated differently than other SSD recipients. Rather than terminating benefits, the SSA suspends payments. Then, during any month in which earnings fall below $1,800, benefit payments resume. To qualify, individuals must be older than 55. They also must perform less-skilled work than they did before the disability began.
The SSA also lets legally blind individuals request a “disability freeze.” This is available to people who work but earn less income than they used to, due to the constraints of the disability. The SSA excludes the reduced earnings when calculating the individual’s average lifetime earnings to determine SSD benefits. This ensures that the individual is not “penalized” for working while disabled.