Vision Loss and Social Security Disability

Over 20 million people suffer from vision loss across the United States, according to the American Foundation for the Blind. There are as many as 150 different causes of vision loss, including glaucoma, cataracts, other eye disorders, and advanced age. These conditions can simply require the person to wear classes or be as severe as cause them to be classified a legally blind.

The Social Security Administration (SSA) has many assistance programs, including offering financial aid to those suffering from a disability, such as vision loss. If you or a loved one is unable to work due to vision impairment, the SSA may be able to help.

The Financial Costs of Vision Loss

Vision problems or blindness are some of the most expensive chronic conditions, with Americans paying on average about $7,000 each year in treatment and management costs, Prevent Blindness reported. However, the expenses can easily rise to $10,000 or more depending on the actual debilitating condition.

The directs expenses include medical vision aids, other medical devices, education or school screening, costs of diagnosed disorders, and undiagnosed vision loss. According to Prevent Blindness, senior citizens consistently suffer the heaviest cost burden. Indirect costs include productivity loss at work and expenses for nursing homes and other assisted care. They account for about half of all costs.

In total, the United States spends almost $140 billion dollars countrywide on vision complications, which is more than double of the cost ten years ago. Just over $70 million of these costs are out paid out of pocket, with government assistance and insurance covering the remaining half.

Qualifying for Social Security with vision loss

Medically Qualifying for Benefits with the Blue Book

The Blue Book is the SSA’s official published list of impairments. It includes all of the conditions and the SSA recognizes as disabilities and the required severity of each condition. The SSA uses the Blue Book to evaluate every application for benefits it receives.

Vision loss can be found under Section 2.00—Special Senses and Speech.

In order to qualify for benefits via the Blue Book, you need meet or equal the following requirements:

  • The central vision clarity in your best eye is 20/200 or less despite corrective measures, such as glasses or surgery.
  • Your visual field, which would normally be 30 degrees of vision and central fixation, and extend100 degrees to the sides, 60 degrees to the middle, 60 degrees upward, and 75 degrees downward, is contracted due to one or more of the following:
    • A. The widest diameter extending under the angle around the point of fixation is 20 degrees or less.
    • B. The total amount of vision loss (the mean devotion or defect or MD) is 22 decibels (dB) or higher.
    • C. Your visual field efficiency, which is the combination of visual clarity and visual field, is 20 percent or less, despite corrective measures.
  • Your visual impairment value is greater than 1.00 in your better eye after corrective measures. Your visual impairment is calculated using the measurement for your central vision clarity for distance and your MD measurement, both in your better eye.

The technical qualification for vision loss is confusing for applicants who are not legally blind. For more information on the vision calculations or if your vision loss is severe enough to interfere with your ability to work, talk to your doctor about applying for disability benefits.

Qualifying Without Meeting a Medical Listing

If you or your loved one doesn’t meet the SSA’s Blue Book requirements for vision loss, you can still apply for benefits. If your vision loss is severe enough that you can’t work a full time job, then you may be eligible for disability benefits through your Residual Functioning Capacity (RFC).

Your RFC is the SSA’s measure of your physical and mental ability to perform substantial gainful activity, which, in 2024, is considered to be work that earns at least $2,590 per month for the blind and $1,550 per month for any other applicants. To qualify for disability, your disability needs to be expected to last for at least 12 months, though if improvement isn’t likely, as often happens with vision loss, your chances of approval will be higher and the SSA will review your case less often.

The SSA classifies five levels of work: sedentary, light, medium, heavy, and very heavy, though generally, disability isn’t offered to those who can do heavy or very heavy work. Looking at the severity of your vision loss, they put in a category of work ability. Next, the SSA will look at your work history, age, education level, and skills to evaluate the jobs, if any, that are available in your work level. The rules the SSA follows for these calculations are called grid rules.

The grid rules only apply to claimants 45 years and older, but it’s possible for younger Americans to be approved in more severe cases. Though vision loss affects all aspects of your vision, such as central vision, focus points, peripheral vision, depth perception and more, the amount of jobs available ultimately depends on your education level. Many jobs, both sedentary and active, you may not be able to perform. No matter your age, your must show all the limitations your vision loss causes you, whether it be at work, at home, or other daily living activities.

Many positions can be accommodated for those with failing vision, but many positions also rely on eyesight. Those who worked in fields required a lot of physical work or where sight was crucial, such as medical, construction, scientific research, manual labor, driving, or food service, you will have higher chance of approval that applicants with experience in jobs in education, administration, or law. However, because vision loss can be a hard adjustment for anyone, approval is likely in serious cases.

How to Apply for Social Security Disability Benefits

If you’re approved for disability benefits, you can start receiving benefits five months after your reported onset date. However, many application approvals take up to two years, so you need to decide if applying for disability is right for you. Before starting the process, you should talk to your doctor or consult with a disability lawyer about your likelihood of getting approved either through the Blue Book or an RFC.

If you do chose to apply, there will be a lot of medical evidence you need to include in your application. The more information you submit in your initial claim, the higher your chances of getting a quick approval.

Necessary medical evidence will include:

  • An automated static threshold perimetry test, which measures your mean deviation. A normal dB would be between 0 and -2, and worsening vision is shown in decreasing negative numbers; however, the SSA uses the absolute value, so a normal dB rating to the SSA would be between 0 and 2.
  • A kinetic perimetry test, which measures your ability to recognize objects.
  • Snellen test, which measures what you can see from 20 feet with your best-corrected visual clarity. The SSA may also accept similar tests with comparable testing charts, like the Bailey-Love.
  • Other tests that measure the central fixation of your visual field including the Humphrey Field Analyzer (HFA) 30-2, HFA 24-2, and the Octopus 32. The SSA accepts all of these exams when determining statutory blindness.

Other important medical evidence will include:

  • Results from any other tests performed related to your vision loss.
  • Detailed reports from your primary care doctor describing your physical limitations.
  • The cause of your visions loss, and any other disabilities caused by those conditions unrelated to vision loss.
  • Records of all hospitalizations and doctor’s visits due to your vision loss.
  • History, length, and outcomes of all prescribed treatments and/or corrective measures.

Even if you meet the SSA Blue Book listing or grid requirements in an RFC claim, if you don’t submit all of the information needed, including personal identical information, tax reports, and medical evidence, you may be denied or your claim may take longer. A full list of materials needed for the application can be found on the SSA’s website. Make sure to double-check the application for any errors or unanswered questions as well.

If your condition worsens after your initial application has been submitted, you can still send additional information. In fact, it’s crucial that you send any updates, like new tests results, hospitalizations, or doctor’s evaluations to the SSA immediately after receiving them, as they can influence the SSA’s decision on your case.

Your spouse and children may also be able to collect benefits if you’re approved. To learn more about the different types of disability assistance the SSA offers, visit our pages on Social Security Disability Insurance and Supplemental Security Income.