‘Disability’ is a word used in daily conversation and holding different meanings for different people. Do these different meanings matter? What is there to be gained by trying to define disability more precisely and to attempt to use the word in consistent ways?

This paper attempts to explain why better national information on disability is important, and why it relies on consistent definitions to underpin the gathering of statistical data. The paper describes the current data situation in the disability field in Australia, and outlines national and international developments. A number of nationally significant service and survey definitions are related to key disability concepts. Suggestions are proposed as to how to progress towards the ultimate aim of greater consistency in data definitions, thereby enabling an improved picture of the need for and provision and use of disability services in Australia.

This is a discussion paper, designed to stimulate debate and thought, and to help inform the Institute about community views on terminology and data. The purpose of the paper is to work towards harmonising existing data definitions and to enable statistical collections to be related to each other; it is not designed to change administrative definitions or eligibility criteria. The paper will be revised and re-issued after discussion and comment. Information on how to comment on this paper is given in section 5.6.