Disability and activity limitation
Why are disability rates important?
Disability is a term used for any or all aspects of functioning impairment, activity limitation and restriction in participation in major life areas that people experience (AIHW 2014). Young people with disability can have a diverse range of physical, sensory, intellectual or psychiatric impairments. These can adversely impact on participation in the labour force, educational opportunities and participation in social or community activities (Groce 2004, UN 2006).
A disability may be present at birth, become evident early in life, or may occur as the result of an accident. Some disorders can also emerge during development in childhood and adolescence. Compared with other young people, young people with severe disability rely more heavily on parents, other family members and teachers for assistance, and many require formal intervention, including specialist health and disability services. This can place substantial strain on family relationships and is strongly associated with social and financial disadvantage for the individual and their family (Hendley & Pascall 2002, Kavanagh 2014, Mithen 2015).
Understanding the number and characteristics of young people with disability, as well as the type and number of supports they use, is essential. It allows governments to allocate resources and develop policy, programs and services which are targeted and appropriate to identified need in the community.
Do rates vary across population groups?
Based on the ABS 2012 Survey of Disability Ageing and Carers, an estimated 321,300 young people aged 12–24 (8.1%) have some form of disability. Of those with a disability, 106,500 were estimated to have a severe disability, accounting for around a third (33%) of young people with disability, and 2.7% of all young people.
Approximately twice as many young people aged 12–17 reported having a severe disability as those aged 18–24 (3.8% compared to 1.8%). Young males (12–24 years) reported similar proportions of severe disability to young females (3.0% versus 2.3% respectively).
Based on the 2011 Census, the proportion of Indigenous young people reporting a need for assistance with core activities was 1.8 times as high as that for non-Indigenous young people (3.3% versus 1.8% respectively).
Which conditions cause disability?
According to the ABS 2012 Survey of Disability Ageing and Carers, physical conditions (63%) and mental and behavioural disorders (52%) were the main health conditions causing disability among young people aged 12–24 years (These categories are not mutually exclusive as a person can have both a physical and mental and behavioural disorder). There were significant differences in the causes of disability within the age range of interest, with mental and behavioural disorders more common among 12–17 year olds than among 18–24 year olds (about 63% compared to 42%) and physical conditions more common in the 18–24 year olds than 12–17 year olds (about 70% compared to 52%).
Has there been a change over time?
Between 2009 and 2012, the proportion of young people reporting a severe disability increased from 2.2% to 2.7%. The proportion of 12–17 year olds reporting a severe disability increased slightly from 2.8% to 3.8%; however, there was no statistically significant difference in the proportion of 18–24 year olds reporting severe disabilities between 2009 (1.6%) and 2012 (1.8%). The increases for males (from 2.6% in 2009 to 3% in 2012), and females (from 1.7% in 2009 to 2.3% in 2012) were not statistically significant.
Between 2006 and 2011 the proportion of Indigenous young people reporting that they needed assistance with core activities was around 3% (2.5% in 2006 to 3.3% in 2011) and the proportion for non-Indigenous young people was just under 2% (1.5% in 2006 and 1.8% in 2011).
*This report is based on survey data; relative standard errors and 95% confidence intervals are provided in the Source data tables: NYIF indicators. Some estimates have relative standard errors of 25% to 50% and should be used with caution (marked with an asterisk). Significance testing was undertaken on values cited in the text; unless otherwise stated, differences were found to be statistically significant.
The ABS 2012 Survey of Disability Ageing and Carers collected information on disability, severe disability, and education and employment restrictions. Disabilities were classified into 5 broad groups: intellectual, psychiatric, sensory/speech, acquired brain injury and physical/diverse disability.
Disability may be measured in terms of level of difficulty and/or need for assistance with some or all of the core activities of daily living. These are self care, mobility and communication (AIHW 2013). Core activity limitations may present at different levels of severity—mild, moderate, severe or profound (ABS 2012). A person requiring assistance (either sometimes or always) with self care, mobility and/or communication is described as having a ‘severe or profound core activity limitation’; in the text this is referred to as ‘severe disability’ for ease of reading.
Data from the ABS 2011 Census provides information on Indigenous and non-Indigenous young people who require assistance with core activities. The data cannot be disaggregated by classification of disability or by the severity of the disability.
ABS (Australian Bureau of Statistics) 2012. Disability Ageing and Carers, Australia: Summary of Findings 2012. ABS cat. no. 4430.0. Canberra: ABS.
AIHW (Australian Institute of Health and Welfare) 2013. Australia's welfare 2013. Australia's welfare no. 11. Cat. no. AUS 174. Canberra: AIHW.
AIHW 2014. Australia’s health 2014. Australia’s health series no. 14. Cat. no. AUS 178. Canberra: AIHW.
Groce N 2004. Adolescents and youth with disability: issues and challenges. Asia Pacific Disability Rehabilitation Journal 15(2):13-32.
Hendley N & Pascall G 2002. Disability and transition to adulthood: achieving independent living. Brighton: Pavilion and York: Joseph Rowntree Foundation.
Kavanagh AM, Krnjacki L, Aitken Z, LaMontagne AD, Beer A, Baker E, Bentley R 2014. Intersections between disability, type of impairment, gender and socio-economic disadvantage in a nationally representative sample of 33,101 working-aged Australians, Disability and Health Journal 8(2) 191-199.
Mithen J, Aitken Z, Ziersch A, Kavanagh 2015. Inequalities in social capital and health between people with and without disabilities. Social Science and Medicine 126:26-35.
United Nations 2006. Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. Geneva: United Nations. Viewed 17 September 2020.