It’s tough enough to find a job in today’s struggling economy. If you’re an African American who lives with a disability, it’s even tougher.

If you, or someone you care about, have a physical or mental disability that prevents you from working, you may be eligible for Social Security disability benefits (SSD). Unfortunately, with the current high unemployment rate, the Social Security Administration is being flooded with claims. Learning how to navigate the system can mean the difference between being accepted or denied for SSD benefits.

How to Determine if You are Eligible for Benefits

Can you answer “yes” to the following questions? If so, you should apply for SSD:

• Do you have a physical or mental condition that prevents you from working? The diagnosis does not guarantee you benefits; it is whether the disability is severe enough to prevent you from holding a job.

• Do you have a disability that prohibits you from working in any capacity - not just in the job you held previously?

• Has your disability lasted - or is expected to last - for at least one year? Or, is the disability life-threatening?

• Do you have an earnings record that shows you have paid into the Social Security system within the past five years? If you have never held a job , you may be eligible for Supplemental Security Income benefits (SSI).

How to Apply

To get started, contact the Social Security Administration at 1-800-722-1213, or click here to visit their site, file online, or make an appointment at a local Social Security District Office.

The claims process can take 120 days or more. Those approved receive SSD benefits after their sixth full month of disability. If approved, your SSD payments are retroactive from the date you were evaluated as disabled. Money you receive is based on your average top earnings over the past 15 years of your work history. Note however, that your SSD medical benefits do not kick in until the 29th month from the date you’re considered disabled.

What To Do if Your Claim is Denied

Denied benefits? Unfortunately, the government denies over µ of claims, even for people entitled to receive checks and medical coverage. Don’t give up, but act quickly. You only have 60 days to appeal. You can reapply after that time period, but the process starts all over again.

If you appeal the decision, you’ll go to a hearing, which can take anywhere from 12-18 months. Typically it takes a judge several months to issue a decision. If that doesn’t work, you can move on to the Appeals Council. Lastly, you can pursue a case in Federal Court.

While you can represent yourself at an appeal hearing, you may want to consider contacting an experienced attorney if you get overwhelmed. You will definitely need an attorney at the federal level.

Navigating the System

Applying for SSD benefits can be a long and complicated process. If you are living with a disability and can’t work, increase your chances of being approved by learning all you can about the SSD system.

If you want to hire an attorney to help you cut through the red tape, make sure the lawyer has experience handling SSD claims, a track record of success, and preferably a contingent fee policy so that you don’t pay unless you receive benefits.