To be declared "disabled" for social security disability purposes, the individual must not be able to engage in any substantial gainful activity. "Substantial gainful activity" is a term of art used by the Social Security Administration (SSA) to mean doing significant physical or mental activity for pay or profit. An individual's work can still be substantial even though it is engaged in less than full-time work. The SSA does not normally consider activities such as household chores, hobbies, school attendance, or participation in social programs or clubs to be substantial gainful activity.
In its examination of whether an individual is able to engage in a substantial gainful activity, the SSA gives primary consideration to the nature of the work, how well the individual performs such work, and if the work is done under special conditions as an accommodation to the individual. With respect to self-employed individuals, activities that are useful in the operation of a business and have economic value are "significant" and such work is "gainful" if it is done for profit, whether or not a profit is actually realized.
Evidence of substantial gainful activity can be taken from the individual's earnings records. If an individual's earnings exceed a given amount on the Earnings Guidelines, the individual will usually be found to have engaged in substantial gainful activities. The SSA will carefully examine the earnings of an individual who works in a sheltered workplace or environment to make sure that such earnings reflect the worth of the services provided by the individual to the employer. In some instances, employers receive charitable contributions or may operate at a loss with respect to the individual's employment. In such instances, the full amount of the individual's earnings may not be "earned" and, concomitantly, the full amount of the earnings would not contribute to the "substantial gainful activity" determination.
The time spent in an unsuccessful work attempt, less than six months, will not preclude a disability determination for such time period. For work attempts less than three months, the attempt is determined to be "unsuccessful" without resort to an examination of other factors. For work attempts from three to six months, the SSA will look to a variety of factors including the time spent away from work due to the individual's impairment, special treatment that was afforded the individual, and the competency of the individual in fulfilling his job functions.
In the "substantial gainful activity" realm, it is not necessary that such activities be legal. It has been held that there is no distinction between lawful and unlawful activities so that illegal activities, such as panhandling and stealing, can be substantial gainful activities.