Prevalence of disability

1 in 6

(18%) people in Australia have disability (about 4.4 million people)

1 in 3

(32%) people with disability have severe or profound disability (about 1.4 million)

For 1 in 4

(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% of people in Australia have a long-term health condition but no disability, and the remaining 60% 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. 

Nearly 1 in 3 (32%) 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 (ABS 2019a).

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 disability prevalence in Australia.

The SDAC considers that a person has disability if they have at least 1 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 if 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 1 or more core activities are referred to in this section as ‘people with severe or profound disability’.

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.

Sex and age

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:

  • 7.6% of children aged 0–14 years have disability
  • 9.3% of people aged 15–24 years have disability
  • 13% of people aged 15–64 years have disability
  • 50% of people aged 65 years and over have disability (ABS 2019b).  

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, including 2003, 2009, 2012, 2015 and 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.

The disability-free life expectancy of people in Australia (that is, the estimated years we 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): 

  • 9.5% of males and 5.7% of females aged 0–14 years have disability
  • 9.2% of males and 9.5% of females aged 15–24 years have disability
  • 13% of males and females aged 15–64 years have disability
  • 49% of males and 50% of females aged 65 years and over have disability (ABS 2019b).

But when looked at by level of disability, differences can be seen among children and people in older age groups:

  • 6.0% of males and 3.0% of females aged 0–14 years have severe or profound disability
  • 3.6% of males and 3.3% of females aged 15–24 years have severe or profound disability
  • 3.2% of males and females aged 15–64 years have severe or profound disability
  • 15% of males and 20% of females aged 65 years and over have severe or profound disability (ABS 2019b).

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+. 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 85+ and of all Australian females the highest proportion (7.5%) are aged 30–34.

Main health condition

For about 3 in 4 (77%) people with disability, their main form of disability (that is, their main condition or the one causing the most problems) is physical. This includes diseases of the:

  • musculoskeletal system and connective tissue (30%), such as back problems and arthritis
  • ear and mastoid process (8.4%), such as hearing loss and tinnitus
  • circulatory system (6.3%), such as heart disease and stroke
  • nervous system (6.7%), such as cerebral palsy and multiple sclerosis (ABS 2019b).

For the remaining 1 in 4 (23%), their main form of disability is mental or behavioural, including:

  • intellectual and developmental (6.5%), such as intellectual disability and autism
  • mood affective (3.8%), such as depression
  • dementia and Alzheimer disease (2.6%) (ABS 2019a, 2019b).

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:

  • environmental factors, such as community attitudes and access to services
  • personal factors, such as a person’s age and sex.

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).

Causes of disability

The causes of disability are complex and often unidentified. The most common cause of disability is that the main condition ‘just came on’ (21%), followed by diseases, illnesses or hereditary conditions (15%) and accidents and injuries (12%).

Of the 1 in 8 people with disability who are disabled as a result of an accident or injury, the incident most commonly happened on the road (30%) or at work (29%), followed by at home (18%) and sporting venues (7.6%) (ABS 2019b).