by James Gashel
From the Editor: Those of us who have never had occasion to apply for Social Security Disability Insurance based on our own employment records are obviously aware as are our employers, friends, and families that we are nonetheless blind. But the Social Security Administration has no reason to recognize this fact. Yet in the future we may find ourselves in the position of benefitting markedly if the date of disability onset has been clearly established.
In fact, in the following set of correspondence, James Gashel, NFB Director of Governmental Affairs, argues that all of us in this situation should take the time and trouble to hunt up the medical records that prove the date when our blindness occurred or was discovered and then insist on having the Social Security Administration establish a period of disability for us, regardless of whether or not we qualify for SSDI benefits as a result. Mr. Gashel suggests that, if we do not have immediate access to such medical records, we contact the school for the blind where we were educated or the state vocational rehabilitation agency that first provided service. These institutions are most likely to preserve medical records and may well be able to produce them upon request.
The following is an e-mail exchange that explains why this effort may well be important to you:
I am doing some retirement planning and had a couple of questions. If you would have a moment to answer them, I’d really appreciate it.
I notice in my Statement of Future Benefits from the Social Security Administration that the amount I would collect on SSDI if I stop working now is higher than the amount I would collect on retirement benefits, even if I work until age seventy. Which level of benefits (SSDI or retirement) does a blind person collect when he or she retires? In other words, if a blind person retires at age sixty-two, does he or she receive the retirement or the SSDI amount?
What happens if a blind person retires at age sixty-one? Does he or she receive the SSDI amount until age sixty-two or sixty-five, then the reduced retirement amount for the remainder of life? Or does the person continue to receive the higher SSDI amount throughout the rest of his or her life?
Your help in clarifying this would be appreciated.
Before I comment on the details of your question, you should consider that the Personal Earnings and Benefit Statement provided by the Social Security Administration is not an official determination. Therefore, while the information is certainly a guide as to what you might expect to receive, important factors about an individual’s circumstances tend to be overlooked. For example, if you have previously received disability insurance benefits under your own earnings record, the information regarding the expected amount of your current disability benefits might be completely wrong. The point is that you can’t take a Personal Earnings and Benefit Statement into the Social Security office and expect them to honor the amounts stated.
SSDI benefits are exactly the same as if the person retires at age sixty-five. Therefore the only reason I can think of for your projected benefits to be lower at retirement age would be that you have had or expect to have a loss of earnings. In other words, you might be facing a benefit reduction caused by reduced current and future earnings compared to the rest of your earnings record for previous years.
On the other hand, when an earnings record shows a fairly normal and consistent pattern with small annual increases occurring year by year, and if this pattern is projected to continue into the future, your personal earnings and benefit statement from Social Security should project somewhat higher benefits at age sixty-five than the amount your disability benefits would be if you qualified right now. So I come back to the supposition that the projected lower retirement benefits must be due to some decrease in earnings which has occurred or is expected to occur.
Now, if this supposition applies in your case, you may be able to do something to avoid the consequences of reduced earnings, provided you are blind. This would be to apply for Social Security Disability Insurance benefits right now. You can do this even if you are working, although the person who takes your application may tell you otherwise.
Here’s the point: blind people, and only blind people, are entitled to a continuous period of disability, which is sometimes referred to as a “disability freeze.” Basically this means that a record is made of the date when you became legally blind under the Social Security Act, and this determination can become a critical factor when the Social Security Administration computes either retirement or disability benefits in the future.
Actually one of the most important reasons for the disability freeze is to protect an individual whose earnings decrease after becoming blind. This is not an issue if the person becomes a beneficiary, because the period of disability (or freeze period) is established at that point anyway. So anyone who has already received disability insurance benefits under his or her own earnings record already has established a period of disability and need not worry about applying again.
However, some people have never received disability insurance benefits although they are blind. Anyone in this situation would be well advised to apply for benefits, at least to establish a period of disability. This is especially the case if the person expects to have a drop in earnings or is entering employment not covered by Social Security.
The only way to have the disability freeze established in your earnings record is to submit an ordinary application for disability insurance cash benefits. However, you should indicate in the remarks section on the form that you are seeking a determination of statutory blindness only for purposes of establishing a period of disability, not cash benefits. As I suggested, you may have to be persistent in convincing a representative to take your application if you are working, but you do have an absolute right to file an application no matter what. Also, in filing the application, you should include any information you have available or can get that establishes your blindness. Once you have done this, you should eventually receive a written determination.
Assuming you are working enough not to be approved for cash benefits, the notice will be a denial. However, it should also state that a period of disability has been established for you, based on statutory blindness. Also the onset date of your blindness should be stated clearly in this notice.
This can be a very important determination although it is still a denial of current eligibility for cash benefits. The importance is that the Social Security Administration is required to compute your future benefits in the manner that is most favorable to you. So, if it turns out that excluding all years from your earnings record after your blindness started results in a higher benefit, that is what they will do. On the other hand, if it turns out that disregarding the freeze period is more advantageous, because your earnings do not fall, then the freeze will be ignored and you will receive the higher benefits.
Establishing a period of disability will always be advantageous and will never result in reducing future benefits. In fact, not establishing a period of disability can result in retirement benefits that are lower than they would be if the blindness prior to retirement had been taken into account. So my best advice would be to be sure you have a period of disability established in your Social Security record.