Being on disability does not require one to be homebound or bedbound twenty-four hours a day.  Nor does being on disability require a complete inability to perform activities beyond basic activities of daily living.  Both private disability insurance and Social Security disability tolerate some activity, and the test to receive benefits often comes down to whether the claimant is capable of performing full-time work. That means that if a disability benefit recipient has the ability and desire to spend a few hours a week performing volunteer work with a church, social service organization, museum, hospital, or other organization that needs volunteers, participating in such activity should not present a problem with disability benefits.  Nor should taking classes disqualify someone from receiving ongoing benefit payments.

How Many Hours Can You Volunteer While on Disability?

There is a range of volunteer work that people perform, and the more hours that are spent and the complexity of the volunteer work performed can lead to problems with disability insurance since the daily activities someone engages in can lead to a conclusion that the individual has greater capacity than what their medical records may show. Or the activities engaged in may be inconsistent with claimed limitations.  For example, someone who alleges an inability to drive as a factor supporting their disability should not be volunteering to drive elderly and other disabled individuals to medical appointments or to the polling place to vote.  Nor should someone who claims difficulty walking be giving museum tours as a docent.

For the most part, though, the comment from the ruling in Donaho v. FMC Corp., 74 F.3d 894, 901 (8th Cir. 1996) remains valid 25 years later – “That she can get out of bed, interact and spend a few hours per month on volunteer activities does not make her able to work.”  Likewise, courts have even found that activities such as running for a position on a local school board are not inconsistent with a disability, nor is participating in a support group involving talking on the telephone, sending out communications, and attending occasional meetings.

Almost every court ruling dealing with this issue has concluded that volunteering is not inconsistent with disability so long as there is no remuneration and the duties performed are not medically inconsistent with the conditions that cause disability.  Social Security rulings on this issue have focused heavily on whether the volunteer activities would show the capacity to work regularly and continue. One ruling issued by a federal court in Indiana pointed out:

  • Volunteer work is not the same as full-time employment and cannot be equated to the ability to work full-time. In this instance, Plaintiff could volunteer when he wanted and would not be threatened with termination if his work was not up to his employer’s standards. 

A federal court in Illinois made similar findings concerning a claimant whose disability was on account of a bipolar disorder. The testimony presented to a Social Security Administrative Law Judge was that the claimant would occasionally do volunteer work at his church for a couple of hours but he was often unable to do even that due to a lack of motivation.  The court found the volunteer work was not comparable to gainful work because of the greater “flexibility and spontaneity” allowed for volunteering.  The court further explained, “The critical differences between activities of daily living and activities in a full-time job are that a person has more flexibility in scheduling the former than the latter, can get help from other persons . . . , and is not held to a minimum standard of performance, as she would be by an employer.” 

Can You Take Classes While on Disability?

Likewise, attending classes is generally dissimilar to working.  However, if there are mandatory hours that need to be spent in a laboratory or an internship setting, that could present a problem with the disability insurer.

A federal appellate court in Michigan also recognized that taking classes on a part-time basis is not equivalent to working.  The court pointed out that time spent in the classroom is far less than the length of a typical workday; and “one may miss occasional classes without penalty, and homework may be scheduled for those times when the student feels his or her best.”

What Can I Do While on Disability?

Being able to get out of the house is beneficial to anyone who is receiving a disability.  Volunteering and taking classes beats spending all day, every day watching television and ruminating about being disabled. And, in most instances, it is a win-win pursuit. It affords a feeling of productivity and accomplishment but does not, in most instances, jeopardize ongoing disability payments.

However, doing volunteer work and taking classes is not without some degree of risk to someone receiving disability benefits. There needs to be thought given as to what the activity consists of, as well as what other activities are being concurrently performed during a week, including things done around the house such as gardening.  Also, anyone on disability who volunteers or takes classes should be mindful of the possibility of surveillance.  Posts about such activities on social media should also be carefully drafted so that it does not appear the activities are more extensive or involved than what they specifically entail.  

Anyone receiving disability benefits who is challenged by their insurance company should immediately seek counsel from a knowledgeable advocate who has experience with such issues.  Even before a problem arises, though, it would be a good idea for someone embarking on such activities to discuss them with their doctor to make sure they have medical clearance and an attorney.  Volunteering and taking classes can offer intrinsic satisfaction and also provide a means of interacting with other people.  Don’t let it be the trigger for a fight with your disability insurer, though.

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