The impact of disability in Australia

How does disability affect the lives of millions of Australians?

You might be surprised to learn that there are more than four million Australians living with a disability. There are many different types of disability and they affect people in many different ways, but every person with a disability has a right to freedom, respect, equality and dignity.

With this in mind, let’s take a look at how disability restricts access to education and employment for many Australians.

What's the chance of a disability in Australia?

In 2015, almost one in five Australians reported living with a disability. The official number was 4.3 million people, or 18.3% of the population, as the Australian Bureau of Statistics’ Survey of Disability, Ageing and Carers (SDAC) indicates.

This figure comes as a surprise to many, but it’s a number that’s only likely to increase as our population continues to age.

The survey also revealed that a further 22.1% of Australians had a long-term health condition but no disability, while the remaining 59.5% of the population had neither disability nor a long-term health condition.


What's the cost of disability in Australia?

Having a disability can have a significant impact on a person’s opportunities to access paid employment, which not only affects their wellbeing and independence but also has a profound impact on the economy.

In the 2015 SDAC, two in five (41.9%) people of working age (15-64 years) with disability reported that their main source of cash income was a government pension or allowance. Those with a profound limitation were much more likely to report a government pension or allowance as their main source of income (82.8%) than those with a mild limitation (37.2%).

Not only that, but people with disability were more likely to have lower levels of income than those without disability. While the median gross income for a person with disability aged 15-64 years was $465 per week, this was less than half the $950 per week income for people without disabilities.

Severity levels of disability

The 2015 SDAC categorised the severity of disability based on the level of limitation that impacts a person’s ability to practice three core activities: communication, mobility and self-care.

There are four levels of severity:

  • Profound limitation. This refers to people with the greatest need for help or who are unable to practice an activity. A person may fall into this category if they cannot understand or be understood at all, or if their condition permanently prevents them from working.
  • Severe limitation. People with a severe limitation are those who sometimes need help and/or have difficulty. For example, a person who sometimes needs help or supervision with getting into or out of bed may be in this category.
  • Moderate limitation. People who need no help but have difficulty, for example someone who is restricted in the type of job they are able to work.
  • Mild limitation. People with a mild limitation need no help and have no difficulty, but they do need to use aids or have limitations. For example, someone who uses a mobility aid to get around is classified in this category.

The 2015 survey showed that 1.4 million Australians had a profound or severe limitation with these core activities, with almost half of those people aged 65 years or over. Almost 600,000 people had a moderate limitation while 1.4 million had a mild limitation.

Who lives with disabilities?

The 2015 SDAC revealed that:

  • 18.6% of females and 18.0% of males had disability
  • 68.3% of females aged 90 years and over had a profound or severe limitation, compared with 51.2% of males
  • 12.0% of males aged 5-14 years had a profound or severe limitation, compared to 7.0% of females

There were also differences in disability prevalence rates across the states and territories, in part due to the average age of the population in each location. Tasmania and South Australia, which both have older populations than other Australian states and territories, had the highest disability prevalence rates (25.2% and 22.0%, respectively).

States with younger populations, like the Northern Territory, Western Australia and the Australian Capital Territory, had much lower rates (11.3%, 14.0% and 15.8%, respectively).

How does disability affect employment?

Participating in the workforce provides social inclusion and economic independence to people with disabilities. However, the statistics show that disability can be a significant barrier for people searching for paid employment.

Key figures from the 2015 SDAC for people aged 15-64 years and living in households include:

  • Only 53.4% of the 2.1 million working age people with disability were in the labour force, a far cry from the 83.2% of people with no disability in the labour force.
  • The severity of a person’s limitation impacts their ability to access work. 25.0% of people with a profound or severe limitation were in the labour force, compared with 58.9% of people with a mild limitation.
  • The unemployment rate for people with disability was 10.0% compared to 5.3% for people without disability.
  • Recent years have seen an increase in the percentage of people with disability working part-time, up from 19.0% in 2012 to 21.1% in 2015.

How does disability affect education?

Completing school and tertiary education allows people to access a much wider range of opportunities in life, giving them the tools and skills needed to participate in society and the workforce. Also, education is a vital factor to help people with disability gain financial independence.

Unfortunately, the opportunity to access education can be restricted by a lack of essential support, assistance and equipment for people with disability. While the proportion of Australians aged 15-64 with disability who have Year 12 or equivalent as their highest year of school completed (41.0%) is much lower than the proportion of those without disability (62.8%), the good news is that it’s increased from just 35.6% in 2012.

There’s a similar disparity between people with disability aged 15-64 years who have completed a Bachelor Degree or above and those without disability (17.0% and 30.1%, respectively). However, people with disability were actually more likely to have attained a Certificate-level qualification (28.4%) than those without disability (22.5%).

What types of long-term conditions cause disabilities in Australia?

Long-term health conditions are diseases and disorders that last six months or longer. If a long-term condition limits someone’s ability to perform activities, that person is then identified as having a disability.

In the 2015 survey:

  • 78.5% of people with disability reported a physical condition as their main long-term health condition, while 21.5% reported mental and behavioural disorders.
  • Back problems (13.8%) and arthritis (12.7%) were the most common physical conditions, while intellectual and developmental disorders (6.3%) and depression and mood affective disorders (4.2%) were the most common mental and behavioural disorders.
  • Of people with profound limitation, 64.7% nominated physical conditions as their main long-term health condition while the remaining 35.3% reported mental and behavioural disorders.
  • For people with moderate and mild limitation, physical conditions (88.7% and 85.3%, respectively) were much more common than mental and behavioural disorders (11.1% and 14.8%, respectively).

How much assistance do people with disability need?

For many people living with disability, assistance and support are essential to help maintain a level of independence and enjoy a high quality of life. In fact, the survey showed that 2.4 million Australians with disability needed assistance with at least one activity of daily life. Health care (29.3%), property maintenance (26.9%) and household chores (23.5%) were the three areas where assistance was most commonly needed.

People with a profound limitation most needed assistance with mobility (88.3%) and health care (77.3%), the latter including tasks such as taking medication or administering injections.

However, while 62.1% of people who needed assistance reported that their needs were fully met, 35.3% reported their needs were partly met while the needs of 2.7% of people were not met at all. People with profound or severe limitation experienced the largest problems, with 43.8% having their need for assistance only partly met or not met at all.

The most common activities for which assistance needs weren’t fully met were:

  • Property maintenance (315,800 or 7.7% of all people with disability)
  • Cognitive or emotional tasks such as making friends and coping with feelings (305,700 or 7.5% of all people with disability)
  • Household chores (228,700 or 5.6% of all people with disability).

Services, aids and equipment

Of all the people with disability in the 2015 survey who needed assistance, 57.6% turned to formal assistance providers for help.

However, 80.2% of people reported that they received help from informal providers, such as spouses, children and parents. Of those people, 52.0% received care from informal providers on a daily basis while 27.3% received weekly assistance.

Aids and equipment also play an important role to help people with disability increase mobility, enjoy more independence and participate in social and work life.

The survey revealed that 2.2 million (or 50.2% of) Australians with disability (living in households or cared accommodation) used aids or equipment in 2015 because of their condition:

  • Communication aids were used by 1.1 million Australians with disability, with just over 700,000 people reporting that they used a hearing aid.
  • 639,300 people with disability used mobility aids, with around 190,000 people reporting that they used either a manual or electric wheelchair.
  • Almost 500,000 people had made home modifications such as grab rails; modifying their bathroom, toilet or laundry; or installing ramps

Figures and numbers for this post taken from a 2015 study by the Australian Bureau of Statistics.

Tim Falk

A writer with a passion for the written word, Tim loves helping Australians compare and find the right products. When he's not chained to a computer, Tim can usually be found exploring the great outdoors.

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