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Disability Benefits for the Blind

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Whether you’re helping somebody with low vision or blindness acquire disability benefits or applying on your own, you’ll need a lot of patience and determination. 

There’s a ton of paperwork to plow through — and dozens of rules and regulations to follow. Don’t let these obstacles deter you. The American people approved these benefits and all Americans who qualify have a right to receive them. 

Disability benefits help people cover the costs of declining vision and loss of eyesight. This guide will explain the steps required to qualify for these payments. 

At the start of the process, you’re bound to have questions about applying for blindness benefits: 

  • How much vision loss is required to qualify for disability benefits?

  • Which government-funded disability programs for the blind can I sign up for?

  • What’s the difference between Supplemental Security Income (SSI) and Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI)?

  • How can I tell if I’m eligible for disability benefits? 

  • Which documents do I need to gather to qualify? 

  • How do I start applying for blindness disability benefits?

  • How much money will I get? 

  • How long will it take for benefits payments to arrive? 

  • How does having a job affect my benefits?  

Let’s explore the answers to these questions. 

What’s the vision standard for blindness benefits? 

Complete lack of eyesight is not required for blindness benefits. Instead, you have to be legally blind under U.S. government rules. This means:

  • Your central vision (straight in front of you) is 20/200 or worse based on the 20/20 standard. This applies to your best eye when using a corrective lens. 

  • Your side-to-side field of view (peripheral vision) is less than 20 degrees.

Visual clarity is only a starting point for blindness benefits because some people can earn a living without good eyesight. Disability benefits are intended for those whose lack of eyesight makes it difficult or impossible to pay their living expenses.  

Which government blindness disability programs can I apply for? 

Your starting point is the Social Security Administration (SSA), which is funded by payroll deductions from U.S. taxpayers. Other disability programs may be available from state or local governments.

If you’ve served in the U.S. military, contact the Department of Veterans Affairs to find out about services for veterans or active-duty service members with low vision or blindness. And don’t forget: You may be eligible for a broad range of government benefits based on your income, family circumstances and other issues. 

To get started with Social Security, you need to create an account with the agency. Your My Social Security Account contains a history of your earnings and an estimate of likely benefits, including disability. 

You can download a free Social Security document, “If You’re Blind Or Have Low Vision — How We Can Help,” to get the basics on disability benefits created especially for people with eyesight conditions.          

How does SSDI differ from SSI?

The Social Security Administration has two programs — SSDI and SSI — to help people cover the cost of a disability caused by blindness or low vision. Each one has its own rules and benefits, though both follow the same standard of legal blindness to determine if you qualify. 

Note that you may be able to get vision disability benefits even though you’re not legally blind — if your vision issues are part of other health problems that make it impossible to hold a job.   

SSDI

SSDI is the Social Security Disability Insurance program. You can qualify for SSDI if your vision loss causes a documented disability that’s expected to last 12 months or more. To get SSDI, you need to have held a job and contributed to Social Security for a specified amount of time.  

SSI 

SSI is the agency’s Supplemental Security Income program for low-income people. Unlike SSDI, SSI has no duration requirement. You may be eligible for SSI even if you have little or no work history — depending on your current income and other resources. SSI payments and income limits vary by state, so you’ll have to check with your local Social Security office to find out the rules where you live. 

Under certain conditions you may be able to receive both SSDI and SSI. You can find out if this applies to you while you’re getting signed up for benefits. 

How do I know if I’m eligible for disability payments?

Social Security administrators define a disability as something preventing you from earning a living for a long time — including permanently. Thus, SSDI benefits are not designed for short-term disabilities. 

You have to meet three strict qualifications to be determined disabled: 

  • You’re no longer able to do work you could do before your vision became a problem.

  • Your blindness or vision loss prevents you from switching to another kind of work. 

  • You’ll be disabled at least a year (unless the disability ends in death).

There’s also a five-step process to scope out the full picture of your disability. If you have no job or income, Social Security forwards your application to your state’s Disability Determination Service (DDS). This service weighs a wide range of factors like your medical history, current diagnosis and severity of your condition. 

If you’re still working, your income is critical to determining your eligibility for disability benefits. Social Security uses an income standard called substantial gainful activity, or SGA, to sort this out. 

If you're blind or vision-impaired, then you’re not eligible for SSDI if your monthly SGA exceeds $2,190 in the year 2021. Though SGA does not apply to SSI benefits if you’re blind, SSI eligibility depends on your income and other resources — it’s just measured in a different way. 

Remember: You may be eligible for programs beyond SSDI and SSI. The U.S. government website Benefits.gov has a handy Benefit Finder to help you discover all the programs that might be able to help.

The Disability Determination Service in your state will use all of your information to decide whether you qualify for disability payments. This requires a substantial stack of data we’ll outline in the next section.   

Which documents should I have on hand when applying for benefits?

To prove you’re disabled, you need paperwork — and lots of it. When you apply for disability, you must supply: 

  • Date and location of your birth

  • Marriage and divorce facts including your spouse’s name and date of birth

  • Names of dependent children 

  • Military service details (if any)

  • Employment and/or self-employment records 

  • Bank account information for direct deposit  

  • Alternate contact information  

  • Job history up to past 15 years 

  • High school, college and vocational training 

You also need in-depth information on your medical conditions, doctors, hospitals, clinics and so on. And you’ll need to disclose other benefits like workers’ compensation and public welfare. You’ll also be asked about criminal records and your attorney if you have one. 

It’s a good idea to download and print out the SSA’s Adult Disability Checklist to make sure you have everything you need. 

Where do I go to apply for blindness disability benefits? 

You can always find a local Social Security office to apply for disability, but you may find it easier to sign up online. 

The SSA’s Disability Benefits page has all the information you need. Give yourself some time to read it all and make sure you’re not missing anything. 

When you feel comfortable that you’ve got everything covered, it’s time to apply for disability benefits. This gets the ball rolling. 

Along the way, you’ll be asked to: 

  • Agree to a list of Social Security policies.

  • Create (or log into) your My Social Security Account. 

  • Gather all the facts and paper you need.

  • Click on a link reviewing eligibility requirements. 

  • Start a new application or return to one you have in process.

These steps could take a couple of hours, so be sure to give yourself plenty of time. You can stop in the middle and restart later, so don’t feel like you must finish it all in one sitting. 

How can I tell how much money I’ll get?

Federal disability payments have a vast array of variables. The only way to know for sure how much you have coming is to apply and see what happens. These figures should provide a rough estimate: 

SSDI: In 2020, Social Security family disability benefits averaged $2,227 per month. However, your Social Security disability benefits will depend on your income and work history. The easiest way to get an estimate of your SSDI disability benefits is to log into your My Social Security account (now’s the time to create one if you haven’t already). When you get to the main page, look for “More Benefits” to find an estimate of current disability payments. 

SSI: In 2021, the maximum SSI monthly payments are $794 for an individual, $1,191 for an eligible couple and $397 for an essential person. Payments may be reduced if you receive income, though there are many exceptions and exclusions. 

How long do I have to wait for disability payments?

SSDI eligibility kicks in five full months after the start of your disability. The first payment comes the month after that. For example, let’s say the SSDI approval process determines you were injured in June of this year. The clock starts ticking in July, eligibility begins in December and your first payment arrives in January. 

SSI does not have a waiting period. Indeed, in cases of full blindness (an accident that leaves somebody totally sightless, for instance), expedited payments may be available. Keep in mind that the Disability Determination Service needs time to confirm all the information in your application. This could take three to five months, so you need to get started as soon as possible. 

How does employment influence my benefits?

A guiding principle of disability benefits is if you can hold down any kind of job, then you should do it. 

But if you have a disability, earning more money typically reduces your benefits. This seems contradictory: If the people paying benefits want you to go back to work, then why do they cut your payments when you have a job?  

The SSA acknowledges the contradictions. So, they wrote The Red Book to outline work incentives that encourage people to find a job and keep it. 

A section of the book applies specifically to people with low vision or blindness. For instance, you can subtract the cost of things like an assistance animal from your total income, which would bolster your SSI benefits.  

More helpful links for blindness disability benefits

Social Security

Call toll-free:

  • 1-800-772-1213  

  • 1-800-325-0778 (TTY)

Non-governmental links

If you’re blind or have low vision — How we can help. Social Security Administration. January 2021.

Disability benefits | How you qualify. Social Security Administration. Accessed March 2021.

Substantial gainful activity. Social Security Administration. Accessed March 2021.

Understanding Supplemental Security Income if you are disabled or blind — 2021 edition. Social Security Administration. Accessed March 2021.

Checklist for online adult disability application. Social Security Administration. Accessed March 2021.

Social Security program fact sheet. Social Security Administration. Accessed March 2021.

SSI federal payment amounts for 2021. Social Security Administration. Accessed March 2021.

Understanding Supplemental Security Income SSI Income — 2021 edition. Social Security Administration. Accessed March 2021.

Disability benefits | You’re approved. Social Security Administration. Accessed March 2021.

Understanding Supplemental Security Income expedited payments — 2021 edition. Social Security Administration. Accessed March 2021.

What you should know before you apply for Social Security disability benefits. Social Security Administration. Accessed March 2021.

Special rules for people who are blind. Social Security Administration. Accessed March 2021.

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