Disability is best understood as a continuum from having no impairment or limitation to the complete loss of functioning or ability to complete a task. It can be the result of genetic disorders, illnesses, accidents, ageing, or a combination of these factors.

Disability may restrict the activities a person undertakes in their daily life (such as tasks relating to the core activities of self-care, mobility and communication), or impact their participation in other ways, such as in social and economic life. How people with disability participate in everyday activities can also be affected by the nature of the opportunities and assistance available to them, community attitudes and their experience of discrimination. The physical environment can also present barriers that make participating in everyday activities—such as shopping or attending an event—more difficult for some.

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) Survey of disability, Ageing and Carers (SDAC), nearly 1 in 5 Australians have disability—that’s around 4.3 million people. While about half of all people with disability in Australia are of working age (15–64), overall, disability is more likely to affect older people—fewer than 1 in 10 of people aged 25–34 have disability, rising to around 3 in 10 aged 55–64 and about 8 in 10 people over the age of 85.

Although people with disability participate actively in all aspects of Australian life, data show that they are more likely to face challenges than people without disability. In particular, people with disability generally have lower rates of labour force participation and employment, higher rates of unemployment, lower levels of income, and lower levels of educational attainment than people without disability.

At present, there are challenges in presenting a complete picture of the experiences of, and outcomes for, people with disability in Australia. Different data sources can define disability in varying ways depending on the type of data and the purpose they were collected for, and data from mainstream services rarely include a mechanism to identify whether a person has disability. The AIHW continues to work towards improving the quality and availability of national data on disability, including developing a standardised disability flag for use in mainstream services.