Physical disability - How many are affected? How is it defined?

More than 1 in 10 Australians - over 2 million people-reported one or more physical impairments or disabling conditions, resulting in one or more activity limitations, in 1993. Almost 4% of Australians aged over 5 years also had a severe or profound handicap, that is, they always or sometimes needed personal assistance or supervision with daily living activities such as self-care, mobility or verbal communication.

The Definition and Prevalence of Physical Disability in Australia, to be released by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare on Friday, shows that in 1993 arthritis was the most common physical disabling condition, affecting 1 in 20 people. It affected more women than men.

Diseases of the circulatory system, for example, heart diseases, thrombosis, and cardiovascular diseases, were the second most common cause of physical disabling conditions.

The Institute plans to update these 1993 estimates using data from the most recent 1998 ABS survey of disability, ageing and carers when detailed data are available.

Report co-author, Dr Xingyan Wen, said that 'from the age of 45 onwards, the number of people with physical disabilities increases, and, as expected, we found that people over 65 are about 5 times more likely to be affected than younger people.'

Estimates of disability prevalence among the 55 countries studied in the United Nations Disability Statistics Data Base between 1976 and 1987 ranged from less than half a percent to 21%. Dr Wen said that 'this large variation is mainly due to differences in definitions and different ways of measuring and estimating disability. Our report discusses some central issues in defining and measuring disability and we hope it will promote discussion and the development of improved national disability data.'

The Definition and Prevalence of Physical Disability in Australia also shows that in 1993:

  • The prevalence of physical disability in South Australia was higher than the national average, reflecting a combination of higher age-specific prevalence rates and a higher proportion of people aged 65 years or over.
  • New South Wales had a lower prevalence of physical disability than the national average, especially among people under 65 years.

16 July 1999


Further information: Dr Xingyan Wen, ph. 02 6244 1177, or Ms Nicola Fortune, ph. 02 6244 1185.
For media copies of the report: Lena Searle, ph. 02 6244 1032.
Availability: Check the AIHW for details.