Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is a chronic autoimmune disorder that primarily affects joints, but can also cause issues throughout the body, including the respiratory system, nerves, cardiovascular system, kidneys, and skin. It can even cause vision problems.

Symptoms may vary in intensity and often come and go, alternating between flare-ups and remission.

Because of this variability in symptoms and the condition’s progression, it could require unexpected, extended periods away from work, or make it more problematic to look for employment.

Fortunately, disability insurance from the Social Security Administration (SSA) can replace some of your income, as long as you can demonstrate that you’re unable to perform any type of work on a consistent basis because of your condition.

Social Security Disability Income (SSDI) is a federal disability insurance benefit for those who have worked and paid into Social Security.

SSDI is different from supplemental security income (SSI). That program is for low-income people who didn’t pay enough into Social Security during their working years to qualify for SSDI. If that describes you, consider looking into SSI as a starting point.

In either case, benefits are limited to those who are unable to “perform substantial gainful activity,” according to Liz Supinski, director of data science at the Society for Human Resource Management.

There are limits on how much a person can earn and still collect, she says, and it’s about $1,200 for most people, or around $2,000 per month for those who are blind.

The SSA includes specific criteria for applicants with RA in its listing of impairments under “inflammatory arthritis,” and notes that you must experience significant limitations in your abilities and meet one of these requirements:

  • Your RA is present in at least one joint in your legs, severe enough that you have difficulties in walking. For example, you use a wheelchair, walker, or two canes.
  • You have inflammation or a permanent deformity in one or more major joints, along with moderate involvement of two or more organs or body systems. You have at least two of these symptoms as a result: severe fatigue, involuntary weight loss, malaise, fever.
  • Your RA affects joints in both your arms, preventing you from using your arms and hands for both large and small muscle movements.

To make sure the process is streamlined, it’s helpful to compile your medical paperwork in advance.

This includes your date of original diagnosis, descriptions of impairments, work history, and treatments related to your RA, says Michael Parker, specialist in long-term disability for Pond Lehocky Giordano, a Philadelphia law firm that often consults on Social Security disability issues.

“In every disability case, whether it’s with the Social Security Administration or an insurance carrier in the long-term disability realm, the adjudicator will determine the applicant’s ability to function,” he says.

“Rheumatoid arthritis is a systemic condition, attacking multiple systems of the body,” he adds. “That’s why it’s important when describing your condition to indicate how all parts of your body are affected.”

In particular, he says, document how RA is affecting your hands — which are commonly, and significantly, impacted by the condition. Most occupations require frequent use of the hands, says Parker, so this will be crucial information to convey to the adjudicator.

It’s also helpful to specify how your legs are affected, including your knees and ankles, which can greatly affect the type of work you’re able to do.

“You may want to take pictures of your joints to show flares, to give a better idea of what you go through as a result of the disease,” he says.

Also, let your doctors, colleagues, and family know you’ll be going through the application process.

The SSA gathers input from healthcare providers as well as the applicant, and sometimes asks for additional information from family members and co-workers to determine if you qualify as disabled based on SSA criteria.

Claiming disability benefits can be a complex and lengthy process, but taking the time to understand the criteria used by the SSA can help you get closer to getting a claim approved.

Consider reaching out to representatives at your local SSA field office, since they can help you apply for SSDI and SSI benefits.

Make an appointment by calling 800-772-1213, or you can complete an application online at the SSA website.

Elizabeth Millard lives in Minnesota with her partner, Karla, and their menagerie of farm animals. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including SELF, Everyday Health, HealthCentral, Runner’s World, Prevention, Livestrong, Medscape, and many others. You can find her and way too many cat photos on her Instagram.