What Are The Most Common Causes of a Disability
Jan 3, 2024
Jamie Fleischner

Jamie Fleischner

3 Jan, 2024

This information is an exerpt from The Council For Disability Awareness, a nonprofit organization. For more information, go to https://disabilitycanhappen.org/.

Disability statistics

Millions of working Americans are facing a growing crisis: a lack of adequate disability insurance coverage. Today, the absence of emergency savings, rising medical costs, and an overall trend of fewer employers offering benefits to workers has created a critical blind spot for many American workers and their families. Without some kind of income protection, more Americans are experiencing severe financial difficulty if they need to miss work due to illness, injury, or pregnancy.

A lack of adequate disability coverage.

  • At least 51 million working adults in the United States are without disability insurance other than the basic coverage available through Social Security1.
  • Only 40 percent of US households have enough in liquid savings to cover at least three months of their recurring expenses, and only 28 percent can cover at least six months2.
  • Three out of ten American adults indicate they can’t pay an unexpected $400 bill without having to carry a balance on their credit card or borrow money from friends, family, or the bank3.

Chances of missing work due to illness, injury, or pregnancy are greater than most realize.

  • One in four of today’s 20-year-olds can expect to be out of work for at least a year because of a disabling condition before they reach the normal retirement age.4
  • Each year around 5% of working Americans will experience a short-term disability (six months or less) due to illness, injury, or pregnancy.5 Almost all of these are non-occupational in origin.6

The most common reasons for short-term disability claims are7:

  1. Pregnancies (22.3%)
  2. Musculoskeletal disorders affecting the 
back and spine, knees, hips, shoulders, and other parts of the body (18.5%)
  3. Injuries such as fractures, sprains, and strains of muscles and ligaments (11.4%)
  4. Digestive disorders, such as hernias and gastritis (7.4%)
  5. Mental health issues including depression and anxiety (7.3%)

The most common reasons for long-term disability claims are8:

  1. Musculoskeletal disorders (27.6%)
  2. Cancer (15.0%)
  3. Injuries such as fractures, sprains, and strains of muscles and ligaments (12.0%)
  4. Mental health issues (9.3%)
  5. Circulatory (heart attack, stroke) (8.2%)

The consequences are alarming.

  • A 2019 study of consumer bankruptcy filings found that 77.8% of debtors cited income loss as a contributor to their bankruptcy. This included 44.3% specifically citing medically-related work loss as a contributor.9
  • A large-scale study linking cancer registry data and bankruptcy filings in western Washington state found that cancer patients were 2.65 more likely to go bankrupt than people without cancer, with younger (under age 50) cancer patients having the highest rates of bankruptcy.10

Workers’ Compensation and Social Security do not cover most of these challenges.

  • Workers’ Compensation only covers time away from work if the disabling illness or injury was directly work-related. In 2019, less than one percent of American workers missed work because of an occupational illness or injury.11
  • From 2009 to 2018, only 32 percent of Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) claimants had their applications approved:  21 percent at the initial application stage and the remainder after a reconsideration or appeals process.12
  • It generally takes three to five months from time of application for SSDI benefits to get an initial decision.13
  • The backlog of appeals cases was more than 400,000 in fiscal year 2020, with 38 percent of them being over nine months old.14
  • The average SSDI benefit for a disabled worker as of February 2021 was $1,279 a month.15
  • That equates to $15,348 annually – which is below the poverty guideline $17,420 for a two-person household.16
  1. American Council of Life Insurers, Assessing Americans’ Financial Retirement Security, unpublished data from study released in September 2017 as https://www.acli.com/-/media/ACLI/Public/Files/PDFs-PUBLIC-SITE/Public-Industry-Facts/Assessments_Report_082917.ashx?la=en ACLI found that 54.3% of non-retired households (51.3 million in total) did not report having disability insurance. Assuming there is at least one adult in each household, this means the number of “uncovered” adults is at least equal to the number of “uncovered” households.
  2. Federal reserve, “Money in the Bank? Assessing Families’ Liquid Savings using the Survey of Consumer Finance,” FEDS Notes, November 19, 2018 https://www.federalreserve.gov/econres/notes/feds-notes/assessing-families-liquid-savings-using-the-survey-of-consumer-finances-20181119.htm, Table 1.
  3. Federal Reserve, Update on the Economic Well-Being of U.S. Households: July 2020 Results. https://www.federalreserve.gov/publications/2020-update-economic-well-being-of-us-households-overall-financial-security.htm, Figure 2.
  4. Social Security Administration, Disability and Death Probability Tables for Insured Workers Born in 1999 https://www.ssa.gov/oact/NOTES/ran6/an2020-6.pdf, Table A.
  5. Integrated Benefits Institute, IBI Benchmarking Analytics Series: Which Diagnoses Drive STD Incidence, Costs and Lost Time? https://www.ibiweb.org/which-diagnoses-drive-std/
  6. AskGMS, a group benefits market research firm, reports that 96% of in-force group short-term disability plans provide coverage for non-occupational disabilities only. https://www.askgms.com/disability-and-life-insurance.html.
  7. Integrated Benefits Institute, Health and Productivity Benchmarking 2019 (released September 2020), Short-Term Disability, All Employers. Condition-specific results. https://files.ibiweb.org/uploads/general/Sample-Reports.zip.
  8. Integrated Benefits Institute, Health and Productivity Benchmarking 2019 (released September 2020), Long-Term Disability, All Employers. Condition-specific results. https://files.ibiweb.org/uploads/general/Sample-Reports.zip
  9. David U. Himmelstein, Robert M. Lawless, Deborah Thorne, Pamela Foohey, Steffie Woolhandler, “Medical Bankruptcy: Still Common Despite the Affordable Care Act,” American Journal of Public Health 109, no. 3 (March 1, 2019): pp. 431 – 433. See Table 1. Free access available at https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6366487/
  10. Ramsey, S. D., Blough, D. K., Kirchhoff, A. C., Fedorenko, C. R., Snell, K. S., Kreizenbeck, K. L., … Overstreet, K. A. (2013). Washington Cancer Patients Found To Be At Greater Risk For Bankruptcy Than People Without A Cancer Diagnosis. Health Affairs (Project Hope), 32(6), 1143–1152. https://www.healthaffairs.org/doi/full/10.1377/hlthaff.2012.1263
  11. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Employer-Reported Workplace Injuries and Illnesses (Annual) 2018, Table1 Incidence rates of nonfatal occupational injuries and illnesses by industry and case types, cases with days away from work. https://www.bls.gov/iif/oshwc/osh/os/summ1_00_2019.htm
  12. Social Security Administration, Annual Statistical Report on the Social Security Disability Insurance Program, 2019 https://www.ssa.gov/policy/docs/statcomps/di_asr/2019/sect04.html#chart11
  13. Social Security Administration, Factsheet https://www.ssa.gov/disability/Documents/Factsheet-AD.pdf
  14. Social Security Administration, Age Distribution of Pending Hearings, (FY 2016 – FYTD 2020 Q4) https://www.ssa.gov/appeals/charts/Age_Distribution_Pending_Hearings_FY2020_4th_Qtr.pdf
  15. Social Security Administration, Monthly Statistical Snapshot August 2021 https://www.ssa.gov/policy/docs/quickfacts/stat_snapshot/ Table 2
  16. HHS Poverty Guidelines 2021, https://aspe.hhs.gov/poverty-guidelines

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