Many Australians, including those with disability, use social support services intermittently throughout their life – for example, during periods of unemployment, relationship breakdown or in times of crisis, such as the COVID-19 pandemic. Other Australians may need longer-term support to participate in all facets of life.

People with disability who need support may use specialist disability services (provided specifically for people with disability), mainstream services (such as education, healthcare and housing), and/or be supported by informal carers. They may also receive financial assistance (income support) to assist with everyday costs of living.

This page mainly focuses on one part of this interacting system of supports – specialist disability support services funded or provided by government. For information about the diverse experiences of people with disability when accessing mainstream services, see People with disability in Australia and 'Chapter 5 Use of mainstream services and outcomes achieved for people with disability' in Australia’s welfare 2023: data insights.

What is disability?

Disability is an umbrella term for impairments, activity limitations and participation restrictions, all of which can interact with a person’s health condition(s) and environmental and/or individual factors to hinder their full and effective participation in society on an equal basis with others (UN General Assembly 2007; WHO 2002).

What is severe or profound disability?

A person is said to have severe or profound disability if they always (profound) or sometimes (severe) need help, have difficulty, or use aids or equipment with one or more core activities – self-care, mobility, and/or communication (ABS 2019a).

Australia’s Disability Strategy

Australia’s Disability Strategy 2021–31 (the Strategy) is Australia’s national disability policy framework. It sets out a plan for continuing to improve the lives of people with disability in Australia over the 10 years to 2031. The Strategy was launched on 3 December 2021 and builds on its predecessor, the National Disability Strategy 2010–2020.

The Strategy covers all people with disability, irrespective of whether they need or use specialist disability services. It helps to protect, promote and realise the human rights of people with disability in line with Australia’s commitments under the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

The Strategy’s Outcomes Framework tracks, reports and measures the outcomes for people with disability across 7 outcome areas. For up-to-date information on how the Strategy is going, see Reporting on Australia’s Disability Strategy 2021–31.

Sources of disability information

The Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) Survey of Disability, Ageing and Carers (SDAC) is the most detailed and comprehensive source of disability information in Australia. The latest available SDAC data are from SDAC 2018. Findings from SDAC 2022 are expected to become publicly available in 2024. Detailed information on the SDAC is available on the ABS website.

Information on the use of specialised disability services can be found on the data reporting webpages for the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS), Disability Employment Services (DES) and the Disability Support Pension (DSP).

A future source of information about people with disability is the National Disability Data Asset. The National Disability Data Asset will bring together de-identified information from different government and non-government agencies about people with disability. The disability data asset went through 2 years of development and testing through a Pilot. The next phase of the asset is currently in development. For a summary of the pilot findings, see ‘Chapter 5 Use of mainstream services and outcomes achieved for people with disability’ in Australia’s welfare 2023: data insights.

A key initiative of the Australia’s Disability Strategy is the National Disability Research Partnership (NDRP). NDRP will be instrumental in building the evidence base for the Strategy to help to improve outcomes for people with disability. 

How many people have disability?

In 2018 (according to the latest available data on disability prevalence), an estimated 4.4 million Australians, or 18% of the population, had some form of disability (ABS 2019a).

In 2018, of people with disability:

  • 49% (or an estimated 2.1 million) were males and 51% (or an estimated 2.2 million) were females
  • 8.2% were aged 14 or under, 20% were aged 15–44, 27% were aged 45–64, and 44% were aged 65 or over
  • 77% had a physical disorder as their main condition (the condition causing them the most problems), and 23% had a mental or behavioural disorder as their main condition
  • 32% (an estimated 1.4 million people, or 5.7% of the Australian population) had severe or profound disability (Figure 1; ABS 2019a).

The number of people with disability has increased since 2003 (4.0 million), however the prevalence of disability (proportion of the population who have disability) has been decreasing. In 2003, people with disability accounted for 20% of the Australian population (ABS 2019a).

Figure 1: Profile of people with disability, 2018

The figure highlights selected facts about people with disability in 2018. It shows that, in 2018, there were 4.4 million people with disability in Australia, of whom 32% had severe or profound disability. The figure also shows that 49% of people with disability were males and 51% were females, that 44% of people with disability were aged 65 and over, and that for 77% of people with disability their main condition was physical.

Note: Numbers are rounded.

Source: ABS 2019a; AIHW 2022.

The prevalence of disability increases with age (Figure 2). Around 1 in 9 (12%) people aged under 65 have some level of disability, rising to 1 in 2 (50%) for those aged 65 and over (ABS 2019b). This means that the longer we live, the more likely we are to experience some form of disability.

Disability does not necessarily equate to poor health or illness. For more information about experiences of people with disability across various aspects of life see People with disability in Australia.

Figure 2: Proportion of people with disability in the population, by age group, 2018

The figure shows how the disability prevalence (the proportion of people who have disability) changes with age. Among children aged under 5 in 2018, 3.7% had disability. The proportion of people with disability increases to 10.8% for the 15–19 age group and then declines to 7.0% for those aged 30–34. For the older age groups, the prevalence of disability increases with age. Among people aged 60–64, 26.9% have disability, and among those aged 85 and over, 78% have disability.

Note: Numbers are rounded.

Source: ABS 2019b.

Do people with disability get the support they need?

People with disability may require assistance with common everyday activities, such as showering or dressing, moving around, housework and gardening, or using transport. This includes help received, as well as help that may be needed but is not received. Assistance can be formal (provided by formal organisations or paid providers) or informal (provided by family, friends or neighbours). Not all people with disability require or use formal or informal assistance.

In 2018, around 60% of people with disability living in households (an estimated 2.5 million people) identified as needing help with at least one of 10 activities of daily living. The most common activities people needed help with were health care (30%), property maintenance (27%), and cognitive or emotional tasks (24%) (ABS 2019a).

In comparison, 40% of people with disability living in households said they needed assistance from formal providers (36% of those aged under 65 and 45% of those aged 65 and over) (ABS 2019b).

Of people who needed formal assistance with at least one activity, most (86%) had received some assistance from formal providers. The receipt of formal assistance among those who needed it was higher for those aged 65 and over (89%) than for those aged under 65 (82%) (AIHW 2022).

About 3 in 4 (73%) people with disability (aged 15 and over and living in households) who needed formal assistance were satisfied with the range of services available to assist with all activities they needed assistance for (where the level of satisfaction could be determined) (AIHW 2022). About 4 in 5 (82%) of those who received formal assistance in the last 6 months were satisfied with the quality of all services received (where the level of satisfaction could be determined) (AIHW 2022).

The COVID-19 pandemic had some adverse impact on supports received by people with disability. For more information, see Experiences of people with disability during COVID-19 pandemic in People with disability in Australia.

What formal specialist disability services are provided?

Specialist disability services are now largely provided through the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS). One notable exception is the Disability Employment Services (DES) program administered by the Australian Government.

This section provides information about the NDIS and the DES program. It also outlines some of the other available support services for people with disability (both specialised and mainstream), including continuity of support programs for people with disability who were ineligible to transition across to the NDIS.

National Disability Insurance Scheme

What is the NDIS?

The NDIS provides funding to eligible people with disability to pay for supports and services they need, thus gaining more time with family and friends, greater independence, access to new skills, and an improved quality of life.

The NDIS is administered by the National Disability Insurance Agency (NDIA). The NDIS is jointly funded and governed by the Australian, and state and territory governments (NDIA 2022a).

Participant choice and control are core features of the NDIS design. Each NDIS participant has an approved plan with an individually allocated budget based on their goals. This funding can be used by the participant to pay for supports and services they need.

The NDIS provides reasonable and necessary supports to eligible Australians with a permanent (or likely to be permanent) and significant disability, who enter the scheme under the age of 65 years. The available supports include core supports to help with daily living activities, capacity building supports that help build skills and independence, and capital supports including assistive technology and home modifications (see Supports and services funded by the NDIS) (NDIA 2021).

The NDIS also provides supports through the early childhood approach to children younger than 7 with developmental delay or disability, as well as the children who do not fully meet the definition of developmental delay and have developmental concerns.

At 31 December 2022, the NDIS had more than 573,000 active participants with approved plans. Of these (Figure 3):

  • 61% (around 352,000) were males and 37% (around 214,000) were females
  • 42% (around 242,000) were aged 14 or under, 33% (around 190,000) were aged 15–44, 20% (around 116,000) were aged 45–64, and 4.3% (around 24,800) were aged 65 and over
  • the top 5 primary disability groups were:
    • autism (35% or around 199,000 people)
    • intellectual disability, including Down syndrome (17%, 98,800 people)
    • psychosocial disability (10%, 59,500 people)
    • developmental delay (9.9%, 56,800 people)
    • hearing impairment (4.5%, 25,600 people)
  • 7.4% of participants identified as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander (First Nations) people
  • 9.2% of participants identified as culturally and linguistically diverse (NDIA 2022b).

Figure 3: Profile of NDIS participants, December 2022

The figure highlights selected facts about NDIS participants at December 2022. It shows that, in December 2022, there were 573,000 active participants in the NDIS. Among the NDIS participants, 61% were male and 37% female. Half (51%) of NDIS participants were aged 18 years or under, and more than a third (35%) had autism as their primary disability.

Note: Numbers are rounded.

Source: NDIA 2022b.

At 31 December 2022, there were around 92,400 children younger than 7 years (4.3% of the estimated resident population aged 0–6 as at June 2022 (ABS 2023)) with an approved NDIS plan developed as part of the early childhood approach. The early childhood approach is the way the NDIA supports children younger than 7 with developmental concerns, developmental delay or disability. In addition to those with an approved plan, 12,500 children were supported through early connections as part of the early childhood approach (NDIA 2022b). Early connections includes a program called early supports which is for children with developmental concerns who do not fully meet the definition of developmental delay and have developmental concerns, and works by connecting the children and their families with early childhood partners, local organisations chosen for their skills in early childhood intervention.

The NDIS regularly collects data about the ongoing experiences of participants, their families and carers during their time in the scheme, and reports on the outcomes and goals achieved (NDIA 2023).

Disability Employment Services

The Australian Government is responsible for managing DES.

At 31 December 2022, there were 273,000 participants in DES (DSS 2023a). Of these (Figure 4):

  • 51% (or about 140,000) were males and 49% (about 133,000) were females
  • 43% were aged 44 and under, 51% were aged 45–64, and 6.0% were aged 65 and over
  • the top 5 primary disability types were physical disorder (43%), psychiatric (40%), autism (4.3%), neurological (3.6%), and intellectual (3.3%)
  • 76% received JobSeeker Payment or Youth Allowance, 11% received Disability Support Pension (DSP), 0.8% were recipients of Parenting Payment (Single or Partnered), and 1.3% received other income support payments or allowances; the remaining 11% were not in receipt of any income support (DSS 2023a).

Figure 4: Profile of DES participants, December 2022

The figure highlights selected facts about DES participants at December 2022. It shows that, in December 2022, there were 273,000 participants in DES. Among the DES participants, 51% were male and 49% female. About half (51%) of DES participants were aged 45–64, and 43% were aged 16–44. The most common primary disability types for DES participants were physical disorder (43% of participants) and psychiatric disorder (40%).

Note: Numbers are rounded.

Source: DSS 2023a.

During the 2021–22 financial year, DES achieved about 107,000 employment placements, a 6% increase from 2020–21 (when the number of placements was around 102,000). Over the same period, the number of 26-week sustained employment outcomes increased by 51%, from 32,000 to 48,000. This reflected improving economic and labour market conditions during 2021–22, especially in relation to the COVID-19 pandemic (DSS 2022).

How are DES outcomes measured?

DES outcomes data show to what extent people with disability are supported by DES providers to find and maintain employment. The following outcomes are commonly reported:

  • employment placements: the number of DES employment (and, in some cases, education) placements where a person with disability has been placed in a job appropriate to their work capacity
  • sustained employment outcomes: the number of placements which are sustained for a period of at least 13, 26, and 52 weeks (referred to as 13-, 26-, and 52-week outcomes) (DSS 2022).

The reported numbers refer to claims rather than people, since one person can have multiple placements or achieve multiple sustained employment outcomes within a reporting period.

Australia’s Disability Strategy Outcomes Framework website reports on the DES 52-week outcome data as one of the measures the Strategy is keeping track of to ensure things are improving for people with disability.

Other specialised and mainstream supports

In Australia, governments also provide other services (specialised and mainstream) that support people with disability, including:

  • the Disability Gateway, an Australian Government initiative aiming to assist all people with disability, their families and carers to locate and access services across Australia
  • the National Disability Advocacy Program, which provides people with disability with access to effective disability advocacy that promotes, protects and ensures their full and equal enjoyment of all human rights
  • the Information, Linkages and Capacity Building program, which provides funding to deliver community projects that benefit all people with disability, their carers and families
  • JobAccess, a national hub for workplace and employment information for people with disability, employers and service providers
  • the Australian Disability Parking Scheme, which helps eligible people park nearer to their destination
  • Community Mental Health programs, which provide assistance to people with mental illness and their families and carers to manage the impacts of mental illness on their lives and improve their overall wellbeing
  • My Aged Care website and contact centre, providing Australians aged 65 years and over (50 years or older for First Nations people), their families and carers an entry point to Australian Government-funded aged care services for the general population
  • the Disability Support for Older Australians Program (which replaced the Continuity of Support Programme), providing support to people with disability aged 65 years and over (50 years or older for First Nations people), who were receiving state-managed specialist disability services but were not eligible for the NDIS.

A more complete listing of services and programs for people with disability is available on the Department of Social Services (DSS) website.

Income support

Australia’s social security system, administered by Services Australia, aims to support people who cannot, or cannot fully, support themselves financially. In general, people with disability, especially those with severe or profound disability, are more likely than people without disability to receive their income primarily from a government pension, benefit or allowance (see People with disability in Australia for more information).

DSP is the primary income support payment for people aged 16 and up to Age Pension age with disability who have a reduced capacity to work because of their impairment (see Disability Support Pension for more information).

At December 2022, 768,000 adults aged 16 and over received DSP (DSS 2023b). Of these (Figure 5):

  • 53% (or around 408,000 recipients) were males and 47% (or around 359,000) were females
  • 30% were aged 16–44, 54% were aged 45–64, and 16% were aged 65 and over
  • the most prevalent primary medical conditions (conditions associated with the highest level of impairment for the recipient) were:
    • psychological or psychiatric (37% of all DSP recipients)
    • musculoskeletal or connective tissue conditions (18% of recipients)
    • intellectual or learning conditions (15%)
    • conditions of the nervous system (5.9%)
    • circulatory system conditions (3.1%)
    • other conditions (21% of all DSP recipients) (DSS 2023b).

Figure 5: Profile of DSP recipients, December 2022

The figure highlights selected facts about DSP recipients at December 2022. It shows that, in December 2022, 768,000 people received DSP. Among DSP recipients, 53% were male and 47% female. More than half (54%) of DSP recipients were aged 45–64, and 30% were aged 16–44. The most common primary medical condition of DSP recipients was psychological or psychiatric condition (37% of recipients).

Note: Numbers are rounded.

Source: DSS 2023b.

Some people with disability may be ineligible to receive DSP due to the nature of their impairment, work capacity, age, or other factors. Depending on their circumstances, people with disability may receive other income support payments, such as Age Pension, Carer Payment, Parenting Payment, JobSeeker Payment, and others (see Income and income support for more information on these payments).

During the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Australian Government introduced a range of measures to support individuals and businesses. These included the Coronavirus Supplement (a fortnightly payment boost for recipients of some income support payments) and JobKeeper Payment (a wage subsidy and/or income transfer program administered by the Australian Taxation Office for employees of businesses significantly affected by the pandemic). DSP recipients were not eligible for the Coronavirus Supplement.

According to ABS survey data, relatively few people with disability received Coronavirus Supplement or JobKeeper Payment (ABS 2021). This could be due to the payments' eligibility criteria – people with disability are less likely to be employed than people without disability, which would prevent them being eligible for the JobKeeper payment and, as mentioned above, DSP recipients were not eligible for the Coronavirus Supplement. In March 2021:

  • 12% of adults with disability (aged 18 and over) reported receiving the Coronavirus Supplement compared with 8.0% of those without disability
  • 2.6% of adults with disability reported receiving the JobKeeper Payment compared with 5.2% of adults without disability (ABS 2021).

Both the Coronavirus Supplement and JobKeeper Payment stopped at the end of March 2021.

Where do I go for more information?

For more information about people with disability, see:

For more information on NDIS participants and recipients of specialised disability services, see:

Visit Disability for more on this topic.