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What are impairment-related work expenses?

En español | Impairment-related work expenses, or IRWE, are what Social Security calls unreimbursed costs that people with disabilities incur to make it possible for them to work. For example, if you need paratransit service to get to the office or a guide dog to get around it, that's an IRWE.

And these expenses could play a role in your eligibility for disability benefits. The two such monthly benefits Social Security administers, Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) and Supplemental Security Income (SSI), are designed to provide financial support when you are largely unable to support yourself because of a medical condition. In Social Security's eyes, if you're able to earn more than a certain amount from work, you are not disabled.

But as part of its suite of programs and incentives to help people with disabilities get back into the workforce, Social Security allows SSI and SSDI recipients to subtract impairment-related work expenses from their income for the purpose of determining benefit eligibility.

How it works

You can work for pay while receiving disability benefits but only within strict limits. Earnings above a certain level represent what Social Security calls "substantial gainful activity" (SGA).

In 2021, that level is $1,310 a month, $2,190 if you are blind. If you are making more than that when you file for disability, in most cases, Social Security will reject your claim, and it can stop payments you're already getting if your income rises above the cap.

However, in deciding if you are engaged in substantial gainful activity, Social Security will deduct impairment-related work expenses from your gross income. If that reduces your countable earnings below the cap, you can remain eligible for benefits.

The SGA test applies to anyone who files for or is receiving SSDI. For SSI, it's a factor only when you apply for benefits. Once you are approved for SSI payments, they aren't subject to the SGA cap.

However, disabled people getting Supplemental Security Income can still benefit from impairment-related work expenses. SSI has its own separate set of strict earnings limits. In 2021, SSI recipients who have income only from work can't make more than $1,673 a month. As with SGA, expenses directly related to your ability to work can be deducted from the SSI earnings cap and may help keep you eligible.


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What counts as IRWE?

To be considered an impairment-related work expense, a product or service must meet all these criteria.

  • You need it to be able to work.
  • That need arises from a physical or mental disability.
  • You pay for it yourself. Any portion of the cost covered by another source, such as Medicare, Medicaid or private health insurance, is not an IRWE.
  • The cost is “reasonable,” meaning that what you pay reflects a standard charge for that item or service where you live.

The Red Book, Social Security's guide to the work-related provisions of disability benefit programs, lists goods and services in several categories that meet this test. Here are some examples of expenses generally deductible from your income as IRWE.

Transportation

  • The cost of disability-related modifications to a vehicle you use to get to and from work. You can't deduct the cost of the vehicle itself.
  • Mileage from your commute, up to a point and at a rate set by Social Security.
  • Paratransit, taxi, ride-hailing or other services you use to commute because your disability prevents you from using regular public transportation.

Medical services and devices

  • Prescribed drugs, treatments and therapies aimed at controlling your condition so that you can work. Examples include antidepressants, radiation treatment, or surgery to correct a spinal condition.
  • Diagnostic procedures related to the evaluation, control or treatment of your condition, such as brain scans and electroencephalograms.
  • Durable medical devices, such as wheelchairs, dialysis equipment, pacemakers, respirators, traction equipment and braces.
  • Expendable medical supplies, such as compression stockings, catheters or incontinence pads.
  • Artificial limbs, hips and other prosthetic devices, provided they are for medical purposes and are not primarily cosmetic.

Attendant care and service animals

  • Payments to caregivers for assistance that demonstrably enables someone with a disability to perform job functions, get to and from work, and prepare for work, such as bathing, dressing, cooking or administering medications.
  • Expenses related to purchasing and caring for a guide dog or other animal that helps you overcome barriers to work, including licenses, training, food and veterinary care.

Home modifications and assistive technology

  • Exterior modifications that permit access to the street or to transportation, such as ramps and railings if you work outside the house.
  • Interior modifications to create a workspace that accommodates your disability if you work at home.
  • Software applications, computer support services and other tech tools specially designed to accommodate a worker with a disability.

Keep in mind

  • An IRWE doesn't need to be exclusively for work. If you use a hearing aid in your daily life but also need it to communicate in your workplace, it counts.
  • You can't count the cost of prescriptions, procedures or medical services that insurance covers as an IRWE, but you may be able count cost-sharing expenses for these items, such as copayments and deductibles.

Published July 2, 2021

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