Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (2022) People with disability in Australia, AIHW, Australian Government, accessed 01 February 2023.
Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. (2022). People with disability in Australia. Retrieved from https://www.aihw.gov.au/reports/disability/people-with-disability-in-australia
People with disability in Australia. Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, 05 July 2022, https://www.aihw.gov.au/reports/disability/people-with-disability-in-australia
Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. People with disability in Australia [Internet]. Canberra: Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, 2022 [cited 2023 Feb. 1]. Available from: https://www.aihw.gov.au/reports/disability/people-with-disability-in-australia
Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) 2022, People with disability in Australia, viewed 1 February 2023, https://www.aihw.gov.au/reports/disability/people-with-disability-in-australia
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(18%) people in Australia have disability (about 4.4 million people)
(32%) people with disability have severe or profound disability (about 1.4 million)
(23%) people with disability, their main form of disability is mental or behavioural
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Around 1 in 6 (18%) people in Australia – or about 4.4 million – have disability. This is also known as ‘disability prevalence’. Another 22% (or 5.5 million) of people in Australia have a long-term health condition but no disability, and the remaining 60% (or 14.8 million) have no disability or long-term health condition (ABS 2019a).
What is disability prevalence?
Disability prevalence is the number or proportion of the population living with disability at a given time.
Prevalence rates can be age-specific (for a particular age group) or age-standardised (controlling for age, so that populations with different age profiles can be compared).
In this report we provide age-specific data on people with disability. This approach was selected to better allow comparison of people with and without disability.
What affects prevalence?
Factors including changes to population survival rates (such as increased or decreased life expectancy), as well as survival rates for specific health conditions, can affect disability prevalence. It can also be affected by the age at which a health condition first occurs, and remission and rehabilitation rates.
The rate estimated by the national Australian Bureau of Statistics’ (ABS) Survey of Disability, Ageing and Carers (SDAC) can vary, even when the actual prevalence might not, because of changes in social attitudes, government policy and survey methods.
Why is understanding prevalence important?
Knowing how many people are affected by disability, and their characteristics, informs planning for providing services and building inclusive communities through practices and policies enabling people with disability to participate fully in society.
Survey of Disability, Ageing and Carers
Data in this section are largely sourced from the Australian Bureau of Statistics’ (ABS) 2018 Survey of Disability, Ageing and Carers (SDAC). The SDAC is the most detailed and comprehensive source of data on disability prevalence in Australia.
The SDAC considers that a person has disability if they have at least one of a list of limitations, restrictions or impairments, which has lasted, or is likely to last, for at least 6 months and restricts everyday activities.
The limitations are grouped into 10 activities associated with daily living – self-care, mobility, communication, cognitive or emotional tasks, health care, reading or writing tasks, transport, household chores, property maintenance, and meal preparation. The SDAC also identifies 2 other life areas in which people may experience restriction or difficulty as a result of disability – schooling and employment.
The severity of disability is defined by whether a person needs help, has difficulty, or uses aids or equipment with 3 core activities – self-care, mobility, and communication – and is grouped for mild, moderate, severe, and profound limitation. People who always or sometimes need help with one or more core activities, have difficulty understanding or being understood by family or friends, or can communicate more easily using sign language or other non-spoken forms of communication are referred to in this section as ‘people with severe or profound disability’.
Nearly one-third (32%) of people with disability – about 1.4 million or 5.7% of the Australian population – have severe or profound disability. This means sometimes or always needing help with daily self-care, mobility or communication activities, having difficulty understanding or being understood by family or friends, or communicating more easily using sign language or other non-spoken forms of communication (ABS 2019a).
While the number of people with disability has risen (from about 4.0 million in 2009), the prevalence rate has decreased over this period (from 18.5% in 2009 to 17.7% in 2018, or from an age-standardised rate of 17.7% in 2009 to 16.1% in 2018) (ABS 2019a). This indicates that the increase in the number of people with disability has been slower than the increase in the total population.
The prevalence of disability generally increases with age (Figure PREVALENCE.1). This means the longer people live, the more likely they are to experience some form of disability:
Figure PREVALENCE.1: Prevalence of disability, by disability status, age group and sex, 2003, 2009, 2012, 2015 and 2018
Line graph showing the prevalence of disability for males, females and all people by 5‑year age groups. The reader can select to display the graph by disability status and by year 2003, 2009, 2012, 2015 or 2018. In 2018, the graphs show less than 5% prevalence at 0–4 years, rising to around 14% by 45–49 years then a more rapid rise to around 80% at 85 years and over.
Source data tables: Prevalence of disability (XLSX, 234 kB)
The disability-free life expectancy of people in Australia (that is, the estimated years the average person can expect to live without disability) is increasing over time (see Disability-free life expectancy for more information).
Overall, the likelihood of experiencing disability varies by age but does not vary much by sex after childhood (Figure PREVALENCE.1):
But when looked at by level of disability, differences can be seen among children and people in older age groups:
The Australian population is ageing, with 16% of the population aged 65 and over (Figure PREVALENCE.2). Half (50%) of people aged 65 and over have disability. The increased prevalence in disability with age (Figure PREVALENCE.1), combined with the ageing population, leads to a large proportion (44%) of people with disability in Australia who are aged 65 and over (ABS 2019b).
Figure PREVALENCE.2: Population distribution, by disability status, age group and sex, 2018
Age structure of all people in Australia plotted beside the age structure of people with disability. The bar graph shows the proportion of males and females by 5-year age groups from 0–4 to 85 and over. The graph shows the highest proportion of males with disability (10.3%) are aged 70–74 whereas the highest proportion of all Australian males (7.5%) are aged 25–29. For females with disability the highest proportion (10.8%) are aged 85and over and of all Australian females the highest proportion (7.5%) are aged 30–34.
Disability group is a broad categorisation of disability. It is based on underlying health conditions and on impairments, activity limitations and participation restrictions. It is not a diagnostic grouping, nor is there a one-to-one correspondence between a health condition and a disability group.
The ABS SDAC broadly groups disabilities depending on whether they relate to functioning of the mind or the senses, or to anatomy or physiology. Each disability group may refer to a single disability or be composed of a number of broadly similar disabilities. The SDAC identifies 6 separate groups based on the particular type of disability; these are:
Generally, the prevalence of all disability groups increases with age, but for some disability groups there is also a decrease around the early adulthood years (Figure PREVALENCE.3). This is especially true for males:
Girls aged 0–14 are less likely to have sensory disability or intellectual disability than boys, but they also have a decrease in prevalence of these 2 types of disability in early adulthood:
Figure PREVALENCE.3: Prevalence of disability group, by age group, 2018
Line graph showing the prevalence of disability groups by age group. The reader can select to display the graph for males, females, or all people. The graph shows that 1.8% of people aged under 15 have physical disability, rising to 11% of people aged 45–54 and 58% of people aged 85 and over. This is different from the prevalence of intellectual disability, which is present for 4.5% of people aged under 15, 1.2% of people aged 35–44 and 17% of people aged 85 and over.
Boys aged 0–14 are more likely (3.4% or 83,000) to have psychosocial disability than girls (1.9% or 43,000). There is an increase in psychosocial disability in both males (4.5% or 71,000) and females (4.4% or 68,000) at age 15–24 and then a decrease at age 25–34 (2.8% or 51,000 and 2.6% or 48,000 respectively) (ABS 2019b).
The prevalence of physical disability and sensory disability increases sharply after age 35–44 (Figure PREVALENCE.3):
The prevalence of intellectual disability, psychosocial disability, and head injury, stroke or acquired brain injury increases considerably from age 65–74 (Figure PREVALENCE.3):
Females aged 85 and over are more likely to have intellectual disability (19% or 57,000) or psychosocial disability (27% or 82,000) than males (13% or 24,000 and 22% or 41,000 respectively) (ABS 2019b).
The age distribution of people with disability differs substantially by disability group (Figure PREVALENCE.4):
Figure PREVALENCE.4: Population distribution, by disability group, age group and sex, 2018
The reader can select to view the age structure of people with one out of 5 disability groups beside the age structure of all people with disability, or the Australian population. The bar graph presents the proportion of males and females in age groups from 0–14 to 85 and over. The graph shows that people with sensory disability tend to be older than the Australian population. Twelve per cent of males and 21% of females with sensory disability are aged 85 and over compared with 1.5% of males and 2.4% of females in the Australian population. In contrast to this, the proportion of younger people aged 14 and under is larger in people with intellectual disability than in the Australian population; 32% of males and 23% of females with intellectual disability are aged 14 and under compared with 20% of males and 18% of females in the Australian population.
Whether people with disability have severe or profound disability differs by age group, sex and disability group (Figure PREVALENCE.5):
Figure PREVALENCE.5: Severe or profound disability in people with disability, by disability group, age group and sex, 2018
Bar graph showing the proportion of people with disability who have severe or profound disability, by disability group. The reader can select to view this graph disaggregated by age group or by sex. The graph shows that younger people aged under 25 with sensory disability are more likely (68%) to have severe or profound disability than those aged 25–64 (28%) or aged 65 and over (36%). Older people aged 65 and over with intellectual disability are more likely (82%) to have severe or profound disability than those aged 0–24 (63%) or 25–64 (47%).
Broad disability groups can include different types of disability. This section looks at prevalence of different disability types among all people with disability.
Sensory disability includes loss of sight, loss of hearing and speech difficulties. Which type of sensory disability people with disability have varies by age group (Figure PREVALENCE.6):
Physical disability includes breathing difficulties, blackouts, seizures or loss of consciousness; chronic or recurring pain or discomfort; incomplete use of arms or fingers; difficulty gripping or holding things; incomplete use of feet or legs; restriction in physical activities or work; and disfigurement or deformity. The occurrence of most physical disability types increases with age (Figure PREVALENCE.6):
Psychosocial disability includes nervous or emotional conditions, mental illness, memory problems or periods of confusion, and social or behavioural difficulties. The type of psychosocial disability people with disability experience varies by age group (Figure PREVALENCE.6):
Figure PREVALENCE.6: Disability type of people with disability, by age group, 2018
Bar graph showing disability types people with disability have, and which disability types are included in each disability group. The reader can select to view this graph by age group. The graph shows that 51% of people aged under 25 with disability have difficulty learning or understanding things, which is also described as intellectual disability. Forty per cent of people aged 25–64 with disability have chronic or recurring pain or discomfort and 40% have a restriction in physical activities or work. Both disability types are included in the group of physical disabilities. Forty-one per cent of people aged 65 and over with disability experience loss of hearing, which is included in the sensory disability group.
For about 3 in 4 (77%) people with disability, the main type of disability (that is, their main condition or the one causing the most problems) is physical. This includes diseases of the:
For the remaining 1 in 4 (23%), the main type of disability is mental or behavioural, including:
The rate (or prevalence) of disability within specific health conditions is not covered in this section. For information on this for selected chronic conditions see Chronic conditions and disability.
What is the relationship between health conditions and disability?
The relationship between a health condition and a person’s experience of disability is often complex.
Disability is a multi-dimensional concept that involves the interaction between a health condition and:
These factors interact with a health condition to have positive or negative influences on a person’s ability to perform everyday activities and participate in community life. As such, people with similar health conditions can have quite different experiences of disability; and the same health condition may contribute to disability in one person but not in another.
For more information, see Defining disability and the World Health Organization’s International Classification of Functioning, Disability and Health (ICF).
The causes of disability are complex and often unidentified. The most common cause of disability reported by SDAC respondents is that the main condition ‘just came on’ (21% or 931,000), followed by diseases, illnesses or hereditary conditions (15% or 649,000) and accidents and injuries (12% or 515,000). This varies by disability level, sex, age group and disability group:
Of the 1 in 8 (12% or 515,000) people with disability who are disabled as a result of an accident or injury, the incident most commonly happened on the road (30% or 154,000) or at work (29% or 146,000), followed by at home (18% or 92,000) and at sporting venues (7.6% or 39,000) (ABS 2019b). One in 8 (13% or 543,000) people with disability living in households were aged under 5 when the main health condition set in or the accident happened. Males are more likely to have been aged under 5 when that happened, especially those with severe or profound disability:
The age at onset of main condition or when accident happened also varies by disability group. Forty-one per cent (or 262,000) of people with intellectual disability were aged under 5 at onset of main condition or when the accident happened; 19% (or 185,000) of those with psychosocial disability; 17% (or 239,000) of those with sensory or speech disability; 9.9% (28,000) of those with head injury, stroke or acquired brain injury, and 7.9% (206,000) of those with physical disability (ABS 2019b).
Data tables for this report.
ABS Disability, Ageing and Carers, Australia: Summary of Findings, 2018.
ABS (Australian Bureau of Statistics) (2004) Microdata: disability, ageing and carers, Australia, 2003, ABS cat. no. 4430.0.30.002, ABS AIHW analysis of TableBuilder data, accessed 3 June 2020.
ABS (2010) Microdata: disability, ageing and carers, Australia, 2009, ABS cat. no. 4430.0.30.002, ABS, AIHW analysis of TableBuilder data, accessed 3 June 2020.
ABS (2013) Microdata: disability, ageing and carers, Australia, 2012, ABS cat. no. 4430.0.30.002, ABS, AIHW analysis of TableBuilder data, accessed 3 June 2020.
ABS (2016) Microdata: disability, ageing and carers, Australia, 2015, ABS cat. no. 4430.0.30.002, ABS, AIHW analysis of TableBuilder data, accessed 3 June 2020.
ABS (2019a) Disability, ageing and carers, Australia: summary of findings, 2018, ABS, accessed 4 August 2021.
ABS (2019b) Microdata: disability, ageing and carers, Australia, 2018, ABS cat. no. 4430.0.30.002, ABS, AIHW analysis of TableBuilder data, accessed 14 July 2021.
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