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The Time Between Disability Onset and
Benefit Application

February 2020

DI applicants wait an average of 7.6 months after disability onset to apply for benefits

Roughly 14 percent of applicants file for benefits within 1 month of disability onset. The number of applicants drops steadily over the subsequent months with about one in five (20.3 percent) continuing to work after onset. However, nearly two-thirds of these applicants make modifications to their working hours or responsibilities.

Applicants who experience disability onset at a younger age tend to wait longer to apply

Age at disability onset strongly predicts how long an individual waits to apply for benefits, but only beginning in the late forties. Through age 47, applicants wait on average approximately 11 months to file, regardless of age. After this point, the average time between disability onset and applying declines steadily, to 6 months or less by age 60.

Applicants who delay applying and continue to work after disability onset have more recent connections to the labor market

Interventions aimed at strengthening ties to the labor market may be beneficial in particular for applicants aged 25–47 with intellectual disabilities or mental disorders.

Median, 25th-, and 75th-Percentile Filing Times, by Age at Disability Onset: 2013–2014 DI Applicants
Line chart linked to data in table format.
SOURCE: Authors' calculations using Adult Disability Report data.
  • The Social Security Disability Insurance (DI) program provides benefits to individuals who have developed a medical condition that prevents substantial work activity and is expected to last at least 1 year or result in death.
  • Understanding variation in time between disability onset and DI benefit application, as well as employment patterns between onset and application, can help target early interventions.
  • Interventions targeted toward disabled workers before they apply for DI benefits may help them to maintain employment or return to work.

Disability onset for this study refers to the date the applicant says the impairment first prevented work.

SOURCE: Messel, Matt, and Alexander Strand. 2019. “The Time Between Disability Onset and Application for Benefits: How Variation Among Disabled Workers May Inform Early Intervention Policies.” Social Security Bulletin (79)3 47–61.

NOTES: All content is simplified for presentation. Please see source material for full details and caveats.

The findings and conclusions presented in this summary are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the agency.