May 28 — 11:00 pm, 2003

Many children eligible for Supplemental Security Income

Families with a child who has a disability often are hard-pressed to make ends meet, or to do enough for their child. But some children with disabilities may qualify for special benefits from the federal government if their family’s income does not exceed a certain threshold.

One such benefit provides cash assistance in the form of a monthly grant to the family to use to support their child’s needs. This is called Supplemental Security Income (SSI). SSI is intended to help defray some of the costs associated with caring for a child with disabilities. It may compensate for lost wages if parents are unable to work because they must stay home to care for a child.

In addition to the monthly cash SSI, the child also is eligible for Medicaid insurance to cover all medically needed health care.

As part of the welfare law changes made in 1996, Congress directed the Social Security Administration to restrict the ways in which parents spend some of their child’s SSI when it is paid in a lump sum. The award of a lump sum usually happens when a child first qualifies for SSI because it may take several months for a ruling to be made that the child is disabled. Once eligible, the child receives money from the time the family first applied.

This money is called "retroactive benefits" and must be placed in a special bank account. The family may spend retroactive benefits only for certain things that are related to the child’s disability. For example, the money could be used to buy a computer or teacher-recommended software to help promote learning or to develop skills in reading or math. Retroactive benefits also could be used for:

  • modifications to the home needed because of the nature of the child’s disability;

  • aids to help the child learn or move about, such as assistive technology devices, modified instructional materials, or specialized transportation;

  • special food for dietary needs, e.g., sugar-free foods for a diabetic;

  • special clothing, e.g., orthopedic shoes or pants;

  • day care or recreation not included in a special education program;

  • respite care or therapeutic foster care not covered by insurance;

  • repayment of past debt if the debt is related to the child’s disabilities;

  • reading and language development games or a jungle gym to use for exercise.

Parents must keep receipts for any transactions involving this special bank account, and must submit a record of expenditures to the government upon request.

Unfortunately, many families believe that their child might not qualify for SSI or may have heard that there no longer is SSI. In reality, it is more difficult for a child to qualify for SSI now than it was prior to 1996, but children with disabilities still can qualify.

If a child struggles routinely to do ordinary class work, to acquire or retain new information, to socialize with peers, or has extra medical needs that other children do not have, the family should be informed that SSI is available.

Many children receiving special education may qualify for SSI, but being in special education is not required, and special education alone is not sufficient to qualify.

It is free to apply for SSI, so a family has nothing to lose by applying. If their child qualifies, it can help in many ways to ease the burden on a family. Applications are available at the local Social Security office, by mail, or over the internet (

Social Security staff will interview the applicant’s parent or guardian to establish that the family’s income meets SSI limits. Social Security will next gather both medical information and information about the child’s disability and then decide whether the child is eligible.

If the child is denied SSI, the family may appeal. The medical information will be updated, and another decision will be made.

Legal assistance is available, but usually only after a child has been turned down the first time by Social Security. Legal assistance is free at Community Legal Services and some other agencies in Philadelphia for those of low income.

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