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Social Security Disability Law: A Beginner’s Guide

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This post was co-authored by Barbara Bavis and Robert Brammer, Legal Reference Librarians.

Social Security disability benefits have taken on an ever-increasing role in the press in recent months, and as such, it is no surprise that the Law Library of Congress has received many questions regarding the law in this area.  In this post, we will provide a basic overview of the two disability-related Social Security benefit plans, and offer information about some of the print and electronic resources available to help researchers in this often-confusing area.

When an individual references “Social Security disability benefits,” he or she is often referring to two programs overseen by the Social Security Administration (SSA):  (1) the Social Security Disability Insurance Program (SSDI) and (2) the Supplemental Security Income Program (SSI). While both programs utilize similar standards for establishing “disability,” and provide a certain amount of income replacement to disabled individuals, they differ in several other areas.  Perhaps the most important of these differences is in eligibility.  Generally, to be eligible for SSDI, an individual must not only prove that he or she is disabled, but also that he or she worked and contributed to the Social Security system for a certain period of time before claiming disability (often referred to as work credits).  Eligibility for SSI does not depend on contribution requirements, but instead requires that a person be disabled, blind, or aged 65 or older, and “have low income and few resources.” Additionally, the two programs differ in how the monthly benefit is determined—for SSDI, the calculation focuses on and can vary depending on the individual’s earnings history, while the SSI benefit is “based on need.”   For a more detailed explanation of the difference between the two programs, please review the SSA’s own comparison chart.

Treatises and Print Resources

Detail from "Disability Benefits" (1962), courtesy of the Prints and Photographs Division of the Library of Congress
Detail from “Disability Benefits” (1962), courtesy of the Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Legal scholars have created several helpful print resources that examine and discuss the law regarding both SSDI and SSI.  We provide links to the Library of Congress catalog entries to these resources below, but if you are unable to visit the Library, please use the WorldCat Catalog to find these resources in your area.

For True Beginners


Compiled Laws and Governmental Materials

Statutes, Regulations, and Agency Documents


Most federal statutes regarding Social Security benefits can be found in Chapter 7 of Title 42 of the United States Code (U.S.C.).  Specifically, SSDI is discussed in selected sections of 42 U.S.C. §§ 401 to 433, while SSI is discussed in selected sections of 42 U.S.C. §§ 1381 to 1385.

Regulations and Agency Documents

Most federal regulations regarding Social Security disability benefits can be found in Title 20 of the Code of Federal Regulations (C.F.R.).  Specifically, SSDI is discussed in Part 404 and SSI is discussed in Part 416.

Detail from "It works--when you can't," courtesy of the Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress
Detail from “It works–when you can’t,” courtesy of the Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Further, the SSA provides several other agency resources regarding disability benefits, including:

  • Social Security Rulings – Published by the head of the SSA, these rulings clarify regulations and policies, and are binding on the SSA. These Rulings are generally available in print and on Westlaw. Further, Social Security Rulings from 1960 to the present are available on the SSA website at  Note, however, that the cumulative index available on the SSA website only indexes Rulings from 1960 to 2007.
  • Program Operations Manual System – The Program Operations Manual System (POMS) is “a primary source of information used by Social Security employees to process claims for Social Security benefits.”
  • Disability Evaluation Under Social Security – This resource, better known as the “Blue Book,” contains information about impairments that are considered disabilities. The SSA began publishing the Blue Book online in the early 2000s, and now it is only available on the SSA website.
  • The Hearings, Appeals, and Litigation Manual –  The Hearings, Appeals, and Litigation Manual (HALLEX), created for employees of the SSA Office of Disability Adjudication and Review,“defines procedures for carrying out policy and provides guidance for processing and adjudicating claims at the hearing, Appeals Council, and civil action levels.”
  • The Red Book – A Guide to Work Incentives – The Red Book, published by the SSA “primarily for educators, advocates, rehabilitation professionals, and counselors who serve persons with disabilities,” describes the “employment support” programs available to participants in SSI and SSDI.
  • Online Social Security Handbook – In this resource, the SSA describes “the provisions of the Social Security Act…, regulations issued under the Act, and precedential case decisions” so that they can be easily understood by those just starting their research.

Other Online Sources

In addition to the resources listed above, there are several helpful online sources that provide facts and guidance regarding the Social Security disability benefits system:

As always, we wish you luck with your research regarding Social Security disability benefits law.  Please let us know in the comments if there are any other helpful sources you would like to add.

If you have any additional questions regarding research in this area, please do not hesitate to use our Ask a Librarian service.

Comments (8)

  1. If the person who doesn’t speak english,and can not read how do they do? for example.if they just movied with their sibling to other states,and don’t let the ssi office know.So do they can receive the ssi benefits ?

  2. Please supply me with information on rates for the transportation of medicare and medicaid patients to medical facilities and all regulations and qualifications for starting this service.

  3. ThaA–There are many resources in the above post that may be beneficial to you. If, after utilizing them, you still have questions, do not hesitate to submit your question to our Ask a Librarian service at

    Frank–You might consider using a subject search for subjects like Medicaid., Medicare–Handbooks, manuals, etc., Medicare–Law and legislation., Medicare–Law and legislation–Handbooks, manuals, etc., Patients–Transportation–United States., and/or Transport of sick and wounded–United States., among others, in either the Law Library of Congress catalog or the WorldCat catalog (see links above) to find helpful resources. If you still have questions after reviewing these resources, please feel free to use our Ask a Librarian service at

  4. My step son received a call from his mother telling him that she will be receiving disability and told him that he needed to call this lady so he could receive money from her disability. My question is since my husband full custody of him and he lives with us can she legally give him the money she will be receiving for disability?

    Thank You

  5. Hi Jessica – If you still have questions after reviewing the resources above, please do not hesitate to submit your question to our Ask a Librarian service at

  6. My two year twins was recently stopped from getting there SSI benefits because they said that we have to many cars,we only have four two of them were purchased before they started getting benefits.I am a stay at home mom and my husband works part-time. My daughter has Edwards Syndrome and my son was born premature due to pregnancy complications. Please give me some answers

  7. This information is very nice. Best law for beginners. It will help a lot.

  8. Hi Marie – If you still have questions after reviewing the resources above, please do not hesitate to submit your question to our Ask a Librarian service at //

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