The Guides to Social Policy Law is a collection of publications designed to assist decision makers administering social policy law. The information contained in this publication is intended only as a guide to relevant legislation/policy. The information is accurate as at the date listed at the bottom of the page, but may be subject to change. To discuss individual circumstances please contact Services Australia.

1.1.S.110 Severely disabled (DSP)


This definition applies to DSP primarily for the purposes of assessing eligibility to be paid DSP under an international social security agreement.

Only certain agreements cover DSP. The relevant agreement needs to be reviewed to determine whether it covers DSP for the severely disabled. See Part 10 for a list of Australian Social Security Agreements.


A person is severely disabled if the person:

  • has a physical, psychiatric or intellectual impairment (or a combination of these impairments), which, without taking into account any other factor, makes them

    • totally unable to work for at least the next 2 years (see below), and
    • unable to benefit within the next 2 years from participation in a program of assistance, rehabilitation program, or education and training, or
  • is permanently blind (1.1.P.210).

Note: When considering the impact of the condition/s on the person's ability to work, other factors, such as the age of the person, must be ignored.

A person may be required to undergo a medical examination and/or JCA to determine their work capacity.

In limited situations, a person may be accepted as being severely disabled without a medical examination or JCA if, based on existing evidence, they have:

  • a terminal illness (such as stage 4 cancer)
  • severe degenerative neurological conditions, or
  • severe disabilities as a result of head injuries.

Recipients who receive a special rate disability pension from DVA because of blindness or total and permanent incapacity for work are also accepted as being severely disabled.

Note: DSP recipients who have been accepted as having a manifest CITW for the purposes of section 94 of the SSAct are not automatically considered to be severely disabled. The critical matter is the severity of the condition/s and the effect on their current and future work capacity for the next 2 years as outlined above and below.

Totally unable to work

Totally unable to work in the context of severely disabled has its plain and ordinary meaning. That is, an individual is entirely unable to perform work of any kind.

However, given the difficulty in working out the exact number of working hours a person can perform in a given week, JCAs will practically assess a person’s work capacity that evaluates it as a part of broader bandwidth. If a person’s measured capacity to work is 0 to 7 hours per week (that is, less than 8 hours per week) as a result of their impairment/s, they are accepted as being totally unable to work for the purposes of being severely disabled.

An individual who is able to work 8 hours or more a week for the next 2 years, or who would benefit from training, education or rehabilitation to the extent that it would allow them to be able to work 8 hours or more a week within the next 2 years, is not considered to be severely disabled.

For the purposes of assessing working capacity, 'work' is not limited to work the person usually performs or work available in the person's locally accessible labour market. Work includes work that exists in Australia in the open labour market for wages that are at or above the relevant minimum wage.

Act reference: SSAct section 23(4B) For the purposes of this Act, a person is severely disabled …

Policy reference: SS Guide Part 10 Australian Social Security Agreements

Last reviewed: