A Guide to Disability Benefits and Entitlements in the US

By Claire Mitchell – Updated February 2019

Hello and welcome to Claire’s Corner.

Claire Mitchell

My name is Claire Mitchell, and I created this site with my partner Daniel.

Our initial aim was to research how much home improvement projects cost and then publish our findings so visitors to our site could see the “going rate” and avoid unscrupulous businesses that overcharge.

We’ve also produced a series of help guides for those that need it most – my sister’s disability being a good incentive to want to help others.

It’s been five years since my partner and I moved back to the United Kingdom after 8 years living in Baltimore.

Finally, I’ve had some time to put pen to paper and create a guide to benefits and entitlements in the United States.

Who is this guide for?

The guide below is for those with a disability, ex-forces personnel who have fallen on hard times, families on a low income and elderly persons struggling to make ends meet.

I’ve created links to the relevant web pages for each benefit and entitlement so you can investigate further.

I really hope this helps those that need it most.

– Claire

A Guide to Disability Benefits and Entitlements in the United States

Having to register yourself as disabled can feel hopelessly intimidating, often because it can so easily be seen as excluding, rather than including, the individual. Even the hallowed American Dream itself appears designed to accommodate those that want to achieve their goals by buckling down and working hard. But what happens to anyone whose misfortune means their own bodies won’t allow them that opportunity?

To their credit, the nation’s government stands ready to intervene and offer financial assistance to many disabled Americans. The Americans with Disabilities Act (1990) has provided aid and support for countless individuals with challenging ailments, enabling them to make huge progress towards enjoying the same opportunities as their differently abled compatriots.

What the numbers say

Looking at the spread and effects of disability in the United States, studies tell us it’s most problematic for older adults, and that walking and independent living are the most prevalent problems. It’s common for those with disabilities to earn less and also to have less access to tech resources than the general population, and certain racial and ethnic groups have a disproportionately higher chance of having to cope with disability and its challenges.

– According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in 2015, there were nearly 40 million Americans with a disability (12.6% of the civilian population).

– The American Community Survey says older Americans are more likely to have a disability. In 2015, almost half the population aged 75 and above (49.8%) reported living with a disability, as did around a quarter (25.4%) of those aged 65 to 74. By contrast, just 6% of Americans aged 18 to 34, and 13% of those aged 35 to 64, said they had a disability. However, those aged 35 to 64 still accounted for more disabled Americans (almost 16 million in 2015) than any other age band.

– Gender has little impact upon the likelihood of having a disability, but both race and ethnicity do seem to have an effect. Asians were least likely to report they had a disability (6.9%), followed by Hispanics (8.8%). On the other hand, Native Americans and Alaskan Natives were the most likely to say they had a disability (17.7%). A similar distribution of whites (13.9%) and blacks (14.1%) said they were living with a disability.

– Difficulties with walking or independent living were the most commonly reported types of disability. In 2015, more than 20 million people aged 18 and above revealed having serious difficulty walking or climbing stairs (7.1% of the civilian population). Another 14 million aged 18 and older reported that completing errands alone was difficult (e.g. shopping or visiting a doctor) due to physical, mental or emotional conditions.

– In 2015, West Virginia (19.4%) had the highest share of those reporting disabilities. Around 17% in Arkansas, Kentucky and Alabama said they had a disability, while Utah (9.9%) was among the lowest.

– Few, if indeed any, of the cities with the largest proportions of disabled residents in 2015 are located in the South. Approximately 22% of residents in Flint, Michigan, Hemet, California, and Pueblo, Colorado, reported having a disability. Almost 19 points lower than Flint, the town of Fishers, Indiana, had just 3.5% of residents reporting a disability – one of the nation’s lowest shares.

– According to the Census Bureau, Americans with a disability earned a median of $21,572 in 2015, less than 70% of the median earnings for those without a disability ($31,872).

– According to a Pew Research Center study (2016), disabled Americans have lower rates of technology adoption. Nearly a quarter of Americans with a disability (23%) say they never go online, compared with just 8% of those without a disability. Disabled adults are also around 20% less likely to say they subscribe to home broadband, or own a traditional computer, smartphone or tablet. Only half of disabled Americans reported using the Internet on a daily basis, compared to almost eight-in-ten of the non-disabled (79%).

An explanation of your rights

When illness or some kind of debilitating condition strikes, it can hinder a person to such an extent that they can no longer function as they used to do. In such situations, disability benefits can transform the life of an individual. But sometimes, ill-informed working people may question the concept of an individual (and especially a younger person) applying for benefits they are fully entitled to request. But please don’t, under any circumstances, let the prejudice of a minority prevent you from making the most of your life chances.

You may qualify for different kinds of benefit, so let’s start with Social Security. Entitlement to Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) will mostly depend upon how many years you have been in work (over the last 10-year period) and also upon your earnings. For those aged 30 and above, the normal stipulation is that you must have worked for at least 5 of the past 10 years. And in addition, you must have a physical or mental incapacity which disables you from continuing in your job role, or prevents you from securing any other gainful employment. Your age and education are also taken into consideration for any award of disability benefits.

Anyone wishing to claim Supplemental Security Income (SSI) must meet the low-income threshold in order to qualify. This benefit will not consider what amount of work you have done, or any amounts of money you may have earned. It is regarded as a “benefit-in-kind” programme, and as such will consist of elements such as food stamps and Aid To Families With Dependent Children (AFDC).

If you are not expecting to be incapacitated for a period of at least 12 months, you need not apply for disability because a 12 month waiting period is one of the qualifying conditions you must meet to be considered for a benefit.

Any widowed person can arrange to receive SSD calculated according to how much money their spouse was earning. And children who are disabled are likewise entitled to receive SSD if a parent has been in employment for the standard amount of time.

Those in receipt of SSI benefits will usually also qualify for food stamps on the grounds of their level of poverty. And most individuals receiving SSI disability benefits will also be eligible for. There are particular Medicaid conditions listed together with the approval criteria for that illness, and to qualify, your condition must render you disabled in accordance with what the system specifies. Nevertheless, the manual won’t list every single condition which will trigger an entitlement to disability benefits. Social Security Administration not only reviews your inability to perform your previous work. It will also investigate your potential for “other work” – defined as any work you have the capacity, education and skills to undertake. If you are deemed able to do any job which will allow you to continue in “gainful employment”, then you will be refused Social Security Disability or SSI benefits.

The Social Security Administration tend to approve applications from older people more readily than they do those received from younger workers. The assumption here is that an older person’s education and acquired work skills will be less up to date. So according to that logic, an older applicant is generally less apt to be denied benefits because of their suitability for “other work”.

If you cannot manage SSRT’s (simple routine repetitive tasks), or have problems doing so, you will also be more likely to qualify for disability benefits.

Rights related to property

A number of disability issues are specifically related to property, and many are addressed by the Fair Housing Act, which includes the following points:

– No one wishing to rent a property or apply for a mortgage can be declined on disability grounds.
– No disabled person can be required to pay more than an able-bodied person would for the same property and access to its facilities.
– A disabled person must be told the truth about a property’s facilities, including how disability-friendly they are.
– Property owners cannot refuse reasonable modifications to a property rented by a disabled tenant.
– A support animal (e.g. a Seeing Eye Dog) cannot be denied access or tenancy through a ‘no pets’ policy.

This means, for instance, that a wheelchair user could ask that a ramp be installed for the front door of a property, or that the door frames should be widened to meet national recommended standards, and no landlord could refuse. But please be aware the landlord is not legally obliged to pay the cost of alterations to improve access for a disabled tenant. The expense of such modifications must be met by the tenant, and furthermore, landlords can insist that the tenant also meets the cost of reversing these improvements at the end of a tenancy.

Using a bathroom as an illustration: Widening the doors to accommodate wheelchair access would not require reversal, because it would not affect the ability of the landlord, or any future tenants, to subsequently enjoy the room. But if the disabled tenant fits grab handles to the bath area to facilitate use, that would be a different matter.

Not only would a tenant have to foot the bill for this work, the landlord can also insist the handles be removed when the tenant wishes to leave, with the financial responsibility once more placed on the tenant.

Registering as a Disabled Person

If you want to understand your entitlement to financial aid, you can assess your personal circumstances using the Benefit Eligibility Screening Tool (BEST). But do remember this feature is an information-only service, so you won’t be able to gain direct access to register and claim benefits.

Registering as a disabled person requires an approach to the Department of Social Security. Your application can be completed online (www.ssa.gov/applyfordisability/), or it can be done over the telephone (toll-free telephone number 1-800-772-1213, or if you are hard of hearing call TTY 1-800-325-0778). And if you wish to apply in person, you can call and arrange an appointment to visit your local office.

Once you have applied, the Department of Social Security will review the information you provide in order to make a decision about what benefits you will be entitled to receive. They will use set criteria to assess your circumstances, establish your needs, and then make a judgment about your long-term disability based on that information.

As described earlier, the Supplemental Security Income (SSI) is a basic payment package which would be available to any disabled US citizen who meets the eligibility criteria. SSI payments are funded using central government resources received direct from the nation’s taxpayers. And beyond this, many people will also qualify for Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI). Where applicable, the amount will be based on your personal contributions as a taxpayer prior to your change in circumstances.

Targeted help for older adults

The elderly tend to have additional needs which already place them among the more vulnerable members of American society, and any disability will only magnify those needs. Thus a number of charitable bodies, as well as the American Association of Retired Persons, and websites such as eldercare (www.eldercare.acl.gov) are available to offer support and practical advice about how to make home living more comfortable for the elderly and disabled.

Elsewhere, the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) can also offer practical advice to enable homeowners to ‘age in place’ – i.e. learn how their present home could be modified to ensure older adults can stay safe as they grow older, and gradually become more susceptible to disabling conditions. The NAHB cannot offer financial assistance with such work, though help may be available from sources mentioned below.

The Department of Housing and Urban Development have created an Assisted Living Conversion Program (ACLP) designed to support citizens requiring assistance with home modifications, especially those who acquire a disability in older age. The ACLP program can also offer home help for those who are disabled.

Anyone aged 62 or above who lives in a rural area, and is on a low income, is eligible to apply for a Rural Housing Repair Loan or Grant. This funding can finance improvements which will make life at home safer for any disabled residents. Details of this scheme can be obtained from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) via your nearest state office.

More information about a variety of other kinds of grants available to senior citizens can be found on the Federal Grants Wire website.

Targeted help for Military Veterans

The United States government owes a debt of gratitude to a great number of brave men and women who have honourably served their country during their period of military service. Disabled individuals who have endured combat experiences can request help from a variety of sources: The Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks have their own division which focuses on the needs of veterans, but there are also other specialist bodies who are willing to offer grants to disabled US military personnel.

The first port of call should always be the US Department of Veteran Affairs (VA) who can offer the following two official, government-sanctioned grants:

1) The Specially Adapted Housing Grant (SAH), which is a scheme designed to help disabled veterans live their own independent lives. This funding could be used to build a new, and therefore disability-friendly home, make suitable alterations to existing accommodation, or meet any cost deficit where a disabled veteran needs to move from an existing home into a more suitable property.

2) The Special Housing Adaptation Grant (SHA), which is intended more for wounded and disabled veterans who plan to stay in their present home, but who may also require some financial support with the necessary alterations this will demand.

The actor Gary Sinise, who found fame following his Oscar-nominated portrayal of the wounded soldier Lt. Dan Taylor in the movie Forrest Gump, has since set up the non-profit Gary Sinise Foundation. Its Restoring Independence Supporting Empowerment (RISE) program provides grants to modify and improve a home, or build a new one, so that any military veteran can live a comfortable and independent life in dignity.
The US Army’s own US Army Warrior Care & Transition initiative has an Army Wounded Warrior Program (AW2). This is another source of funding for former soldiers and their families who find there is a need to make changes to their present home because of an injury in service.

The American Red Cross is another body which takes great pride in caring for veterans and active members of the military, as well as their families, who have suffered distress as a consequence of serving our country. For those disabled while on active duty, this organisation may be able to provide financial support for any home modifications which may be required.

Travel advice for those with a disability

As the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) notes: ‘A person with a disability may have a physical or mental impairment that impacts a major life activity – such as walking, hearing, or breathing. This may be on a permanent or temporary basis. For example, a person with a temporary disability may have a broken leg that is temporarily fused or immobilized.’

And as the DOT goes on to confirm, airlines are therefore obliged to accommodate the needs of all such air travellers with disabilities.

Thus under the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA) – which applies to all flights to, from, or within the United States – it is illegal for an airline to discriminate against passengers on the grounds of their disability. The responsibility of ACAA enforcement lies with the Department of Transportation.

Passengers with disabilities may require other types of assistance which airlines must also offer to provide, including:

– wheelchair or other guided assistance to board, de-plane, or connect to another flight;
– help with seating accommodation to meet the passenger’s disability-related needs;
– and help with both the loading and stowing of any personal assistive devices.

Should you feel any airline has actively discriminated against you on the basis of your disability, which may include not adequately accommodating your essential needs, you are entitled to file a complaint with the DOT.

Travel Tips for Persons with Disabilities: Further information

The U.S. Department of Transportation’s Office of Aviation Enforcement and Proceedings (AEP) and Office of Transportation Policy have created informative modular programs designed both to assist individuals with disabilities and also to enhance the ongoing education and training of all airline staff and contractors. These programs encompass the rights and responsibilities of individuals and airlines under the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA) and its implementing regulation, 14 CFR Part 382. The materials were produced in joint cooperation with stakeholders from the disability community and airline industry. Although many such programs clearly have a primary target audience, the content will be helpful to any passenger, airline employee, or contractor.


This guide has aimed to cover the nationwide support which can be called upon to assist disabled individuals. However, there may also be other more local sources which can be found in certain states or towns. So be sure to follow up this possibility by doing some further investigation to explore what is on offer in your own community.

No one need feel they must face the challenge of disabled living alone. Just remember there is a substantial volume of help you can access. We are all so much stronger together, so accept the support that is available, and secure your right to live a more comfortable life in a home that is safe and accessible for you, and meets the needs of your disability.

A list of helpful charities and resources:

Throughout this guide there are links to various charities and other external sources. A summary of these diverse organisations very willing to offer help is included below.

American Association of Retired Persons – www.aarp.org
The American Red Cross – www.redcross.org
Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) – www.ada.gov
Benefit Eligibility Screening Tool (BEST) – www.ssabest.benefits.gov
The Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks – www.elks.org
Department of Housing and Urban Development – www.hud.gov
Department of Social Security – www.ssa.gov
Fair Housing Act – www.justice.gov/crt/fair-housing-act
Federal Grants Wire – www.federalgrantswire.com
The Gary Sinise Foundation – www.garysinisefoundation.org
Habitat for Humanity – www.habitat.org
Lions Club International – www.lionsclubs.org
Medicaid – www.medicaid.gov
Modest Needs – www.modestneeds.org
National Council of State Housing Agencies – www.ncsha.org
National Directory of Home Mods and Repairs – www.homemods.org
[Re]Building Together – www.rebuildingtogether.org
Rehabilitation Engineering Society of North America – www.resna.org
Travis Roy Foundation – www.travisroyfoundation.org
US Army WC&T – www.wct.army.mil
US Department of Veteran Affairs – www.va.gov
USDA Loans – www.eligibility.sc.egov.usda.gov