Disability and low-income benefits
Disability benefits are cash payments for people who can't work because of a disability. You could receive benefits from a number of sources including the federal or state government or an insurance company (as an employment benefit or because you bought a policy privately). Eligibility may depend on how much you are able to work, when you stopped working, how long the disability is expected to last, whether you have paid into the insurance program for long enough, how old you are and what other income or assets you have.
Because "disability benefit" can mean a number of different things, it is helpful to use the name of the specific benefit you are interested in.
As well as disability benefits, there are other financial assistance programs for people with very low income and/or assets.
Each program is likely to have different eligibility criteria. Usually you have to apply to each program separately, however occasionally you can apply for multiple programs through one application, or use proof of eligibility for one program to simplify the application for another program.
If you have questions about a benefit or need to follow up on your application or a letter you received, you need to contact the agency who sent the letter or who administers the benefit.
Long term federal benefits: SSDI and SSI
The Social Security Administration (SSA) pays disability benefits to adults of working age who “have a physical or mental condition that prevents them from working and is expected to last at least a year or result in death.” SSA uses a different definition to evaluate disabled children who may also be eligible for disability cash benefits if their household has low income.
The two most common SSA programs that offer benefits to those who qualify are:
1. The Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) program - If you’ve paid Social Security taxes long enough to achieve enough work credits, SSDI may be available to you. Note that local and state government employees usually do not pay the Social Security contributions required for SSDI.
2. The Supplemental Security Income (SSI) program - If you have limited income and assets, SSI may be available to you.
Nowadays there is one joint application process for these, however the process is quite lengthy, so it can be useful to learn a bit before starting. There is a lot of useful information on the Social Security Administration (SSA) website. Here are a few specific items that might be useful:
- The SSA page for disability benefits: This page includes a list of what information you will need and a very brief overview of the process. It includes a link to a booklet on disability benefits that lists the five-step evaluation process (page 6). This can help in understanding why applications for SSDI take a long time and many are initially denied – many people assume that if their doctor says they have a disability they will qualify for SSDI, but the actual evaluation process looks at the applicant's functional limitations and options for alternative employment rather than their diagnosis/prognosis.
- Booklet on benefits for children.
- Eligibility and special situations: This page explains further eligibility requirements, including that you typically need to have been working and making Social Security contributions for at least 5 of the last 10 years. It also mentions the programs that can fast track your application for particular medical conditions.
- The SSA contact page: where you can look up your local office and online services. The SSA national phone number is (800) 772-1213.
DDS: Disability Determination Services
The Social Security Administration uses a separate agency to determine initial and continued eligibility for Social Security disability benefits programs: Disability Determination Services (DDS) at Massachusetts Rehabilitation Commission. As part of their evaluation, they may require you to attend a medical appointment. You can contact DDS at (800) 882-2040 (Boston) or (800) 551-5532 (Worcester).
Massachusetts financial assistance
PFML: Paid Family and Medical Leave
From January 2021, the Department of Paid Family Medical Leave offers a cash benefit to Massachusetts employees who need to take paid leave for medical or family reasons. Most employers participate in the program, but there are exceptions and opt-in/opt-out options, so check if your employer participates. Find out more at Paid Family and Medical Leave (PFML) or (833) 344-7365.
SSP: State Supplement Program
If you qualify for Supplemental Security Income (SSI) from the federal government, you may be able to receive supplementary benefits from the state. The state agency that administers the supplement is the Massachusetts State Supplement Program (SSP). You can contact SSP at (877) 863-1128.
DTA: Department of Transitional Assistance
The Department of Transitional Assistance (DTA) provides cash benefits to certain people with very low income and assets. DTA administers:
- Emergency Aid for the Elderly, Disabled and Children (EAEDC) - people with very low income and assets who are unable to work for a medical reason for at least 60 days may be eligible. This is a potential source of income while a person is awaiting a decision on a SSA benefit claim. EAEDC can also cover people needing to stay home to care for someone who would otherwise need to move into an institution.
- Transitional Aid to Families with Dependent Children (TAFDC), a state and federally funded program that provides cash assistance to families with children and pregnant women in the last 120 days of pregnancy who have little or no assets or income.
- Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as the food stamp program. More information about SNAP can be found at Project Bread's GettingSnap.org website and food source hotline: (800) 645-8333.
You can contact the DTA at (877) 382-2363.
Private or employer disability insurance
Some employers offer short- or long-term disability insurance as a benefit to their employees. You should check with your Human Resources department to find out whether your employer offers this benefit and if you have enrolled in it. If you have private disability insurance as an employment benefit, or that you've bought individually, typically it will require you to apply for any public benefits available (such as PFML or Social Security benefits - see sections above). In these conversations, if people are referring to "disability," they often mean PFML or SSDI.
Other programs that can help financially
If your household income is below a certain level you may be eligible for Fuel Assistance to help pay for heating during the winter. You have to apply to your local Fuel Assistance agency each year, but after the first year they should send you an application. You can usually only apply between November and April. There are also programs to help with emergency heating system repair and home weatherization. Find out more about Home Energy Assistance Programs.
Reduced utility rates are available for households on low income or receiving certain benefits. If the bills are in your name, you can simply call your gas and electricity company and ask them to give you the low income rate. They will probably need you to send proof of income or that you are on a low-income benefit. These rates can be 25% lower than normal rates.
The Lifeline program connects you to local telephone companies who provide discounted phone or internet service for people on low income. You fill in an application form and once eligible, can choose from a limited number of phone/internet companies, or you may be able to apply the Lifeline benefit to a service you are already using.
Housing in Massachusetts is expensive and it is often a person's largest monthly expense. Obtaining financial assistance for housing can take years, but if you think you will need it, you might want to get on waitlists. Our Housing Search section gives useful links about subsidized housing.
Tax Preparation Help
The VITA program provides free tax return preparation help for people on low income.
Many people seeking financial assistance would like to work and earn income if they can find a way to. There are free programs to help people with disabilities explore career options, build skills, ask for accommodations at work, and understand how income affects benefits.
If you're interested in employment and could use supports, explore the vocational rehabilitation (VR) services offered by the Massachusetts Rehabilitation Commission (MRC). You can apply for VR from MRC here.
The Massachusetts Commission for the Blind (MCB) also offers vocational rehabilitation services.
Our Client Assistance Program (CAP) provides confidential and neutral support for people who have questions and concerns about their VR services or their rights.
How working affects Social Security benefits
It is common for people on Social Security benefits to be scared of losing their benefits by earning too much. It is important to learn exactly how to report changes in income and what the effect on your benefits will be.
Social Security contracts with two agencies in Massachusetts to provide free benefit counseling: you can speak to a benefit counselor about the specifics of your situation.
There are also sources of information online:
- Social Security Work Incentive Seminar Events
- Work Without Limits provides useful factsheets such as: SSDI and Work Incentives; SSI and Work Incentives
Here at MOD we can help people understand their rights in employment and how to ask for a ‘reasonable accommodation’ such as an adjustment or support at work that would enable them to do their job.
Information and Referrals
MassOptions offers a directory of different services available for elders and people living with disabilities and a phone number (800-243-4636) you can call if you’re trying to find out what services might be available to help with a particular issue. It can be easier for these sorts of services to give you good answers if you have a specific question or need identified, but the website might be useful to browse if you want to see broadly what sorts of services are available.
Independent Living Centers
An Independent Living Center (ILC) is a disability advocacy organization with a mission of ensuring that people with disabilities can make their own choices and live as independently as possible with the supports that they need. ILCs are community based non-profit organizations. Rather than providing case management, ILCs are focused on the person with a disability making their own decisions with their support. You can connect with your local ILC to develop what is called an independent living plan. The plan identifies the areas with which you need assistance and the steps that need to be taken to get to the ultimate goal of resolving those issues. The local ILC would help you identify your needs and the steps required to address the needs. They would support you in connecting with the applicable programs that exist. You would be eligible for services through a ILC simply by being a person with a disability who agrees to participate in the services that they offer. An ILC is a good choice if it seems overwhelming to figure out what you need or what services exists and if you aren’t sure how to start.
All ILCs offer these services:
- Information and Referral
- Peer Support
- Skills Training
- Nursing home and institution transition to the community
- Youth Transition
There are ten ILCs across Massachusetts: find your local ILC.
Our Client Assistance Program (CAP) provides confidential and neutral support for people who have questions and concerns about their independent living services or their rights to these services.
Frequently Asked Questions
What benefits cover pregnancy?
Private disability insurance carriers often cover employees who cannot work because of pregnancy. Some employers offer short term disability insurance as a benefit to employees and some people purchase this disability insurance coverage privately.
If you are eligible for PFML, you can use this to cover pregnancy-related leave.
The Department of Transitional Assistance administers Transitional Aid to Families with Dependent Children (TAFDC), a state and federally funded program that provides cash assistance to families with children and pregnant women in the last 120 days of pregnancy who have little or no assets or income.
Pregnant and breastfeeding women may also be eligible for the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC).
What other places could possibly offer financial assistance?
The Veterans Administration, private insurance carriers, and government pension systems also pay benefits to people with disabilities. Local foundations and charitable or fraternal organizations often fund projects.
I’ve been asked to verify my income with a letter. How should I go about obtaining it?
First determine which entity issues your benefits and contact them directly (links and phone numbers are given in the federal and Massachusetts sections above). If you are receiving benefits from SSA as well through the state supplement program, you would have to contact each agency separately.
The Social Security Administration uses Disability Determination Services (DDS) at Massachusetts Rehabilitation Commission to determine initial and continued eligibility for Social Security disability benefits programs. As part of their evaluation, they may require you to attend a medical appointment. You can contact DDS at (800) 882-2040 (Boston) or (800) 551-5532 (Worcester).
I'm appealing a decision on SS benefits. Where do I go for the hearing?
If you are scheduled to attend a hearing to appeal a decision about benefits, you can look up the hearing office details.
Can I get help with assistive technology or disability medical equipment?
MassMatch provides links to search for assistive technology and medical equipment available for sale or for free, as well as information on low interest loans for assistive technology.
Are there funding sources for home adaptations?
Massachusetts Rehabilitation Commission provides a useful listing of resources for loans to perform modifications to make a home more accessible to a person with a disability.
Are there funding sources for accessible vans?
Otherwise some financial help may be available through:
- Easter Seals assistive technology loan program
- Rebates from the manufacturer of a new vehicle for people who are going to modify it after purchase
- Sales and excise tax exemptions for people with certain limitations:
Massachusetts Automobile Excise Tax Exemption
Vehicle excise tax exemption for a person who has suffered loss or permanent loss of use of both legs or both arms or loss of vision of both eyes to a certain degree. The exemption applies to one motor vehicle per person, owned and registered for their personal, noncommercial use. Applications for excise tax exemptions are available from the local town assessor’s office.
Massachusetts Automobile Sales Tax Exemption
Exemption from purchase and use tax of a vehicle for a disabled person who is the original registered owner of the motor vehicle and has lost two or more limbs or has permanent loss of use of at least 80% of two or more limbs. Parents and others who transport people with disabilities may also be entitled to this exemption. A wheelchair lift used to make a van accessible may also be exempt even if purchased separately from the vehicle. In cases where the lift is purchased after the van, a physician’s prescription may be needed to document this exemption. For more information contact:
Department of Revenue, Customer Service Bureau: (800) 392-6089, TTY: (617) 887-6140
Mass. Registry of Motor Vehicles, Medical Affairs: (617) 351-9222, TTY: (877) 768-883