Counting People with Disabilities
Counting People with Disabilities

Categories: Community Life

By Guest Blogger Matthew Brault, Statistician, Health and Disability Statistics Branch, U.S. Census Bureau

As most visitors to this blog are aware, the signing of the Americans with Disabilities Act on July 26, 1990 represented a major milestone. The law guaranteed equal opportunity for people with disabilities in public accommodations, commercial facilities, employment, transportation, state and local government services and telecommunications. A common question, however, that still pops up during discussions of disability policy is, “How many people with disabilities are there in the United States?”

Graph. Disability Prevalence and the Need for Assistance by Age: 2010

Coinciding with the 22nd anniversary of the ADA, the Census Bureau released a new report – Americans With Disabilities: 2010 – that presented a new look at the prevalence of a wide range of specific disabilities, the degree of severity and the well-being of the population with disabilities. The report showed the number of people with disabilities increasing over the previous five years to 56.7 million people in 2010 (54.4 million in 2005), while the proportion of the population with a disability remaining unchanged at 18.7 percent of the civilian noninstitutionalized population.

The Americans With Disabilities: 2010 report also shows the prevalence of specific disability types.  For instance, about 8 million adults had difficulty seeing; 9 million adults had difficulty with an activity of daily living (ADL); and 4 million adults had a learning disability. Furthermore, disability is often co-occurring with around 11 million individuals experiencing both physical and mental disabilities.

Measuring disability in surveys, however, is not an easy task and different surveys can generate very different estimates of the size of this population. “With a disability” in one study may not be the same as “with a disability” in another. Depending on the definition used, the context of the questions or methods in which the data are collected, estimates of the size of the population with disabilities have ranged from 22 million (from the American Housing Survey) to 62 million (from the National Health Interview Survey).

The Census Bureau report’s estimate of 56.7 million people with disabilities come from the Survey of Income and Program Participation (SIPP), which uses a comprehensive set of disability questions assessing difficulty on a number of dimensions including communication, physical and mental functions.

Disability statistics from this survey are used by agencies — such as the Social Security Administration, Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services and the Administration on Aging — to assist with program planning and management. The SIPP measure has been the primary statistic for estimating the size of the population with disabilities since the early 1990s.

Disability and functioning are continuums ranging from “able to do most or all basic activities with little or no difficulty or help from technology or another person” to “completely unable to do most or all basic activities, even with assistive technology or other aids.” Under this gradient, most people fall somewhere in between. We use categories like “with a disability” and “with no disability” to make it easier to describe the population, even though the threshold for how much difficulty constitutes a disability may not be clear.

Perhaps some of the difficulty in defining disability along this continuum is also found in the issue of choosing which activities should be included in the disability measure.  The American Community Survey (ACS) – a great survey for looking at the social, economic and housing characteristics of subnational geographies like states, counties and metropolitan areas – uses questions on six specific types of disability. With fewer dimensions of disability, the ACS shows a smaller number of people with disabilities (36 million, or 12 percent), but provides statistics at more localized levels.

Researchers, advocates and policymakers should be aware of the reasons for the different estimates of the number of people with disabilities in the U.S.  No one survey estimate is “right” or “wrong” as all surveys must make choices about the type and nature of disability they intend to measure. With the SIPP’s comprehensive set of questions on various disabilities, the Census Bureau (and many across the federal government) have used Americans with Disabilities report estimates, like the current estimate of 56.7 million people with disabilities, and so it is widely accepted as the measure of the size of this population.

For presentation slides and more information from a July 27, 2012 C-SPAN segment on the Americans With Disabilities report, visit

Matthew W. Brault is a statistician with the Health and Disability Statistics Branch in the Social, Economic and Housing Statistics Division of the U.S. Census Bureau. For the past seven years, he has studied the social and economic characteristics of people with disabilities in the United States, including the prevalence of disability across geographies and population subgroups. He has written several reports and papers about this population — including the recently released “Americans With Disabilities: 2010″ — using data from the Survey of Income and Program Participation and the American Community Survey. Brault received a bachelor’s degree in sociology from George Washington University and is currently pursuing a master’s degree in public policy from Georgetown University.

27 Responses to Counting People with Disabilities

  1. Nancy says:

    Could you elaborate on the difference between “severe” and “non-severe” disabilities? How is that determination made? Are sensory disabilities, like legal blindness or profound hearing loss, automatically considered severe?

    Thank you!

  2. Jenny says:

    I receive Disability for seven severe health problems. I found this article by researching how many people in the US today are disabled under age 40, or 30. I had to try to find this out because one of my dearest friends is ignorant about facts. I might share the stats with her. I am not ashamed at all about living today with a very low income and needing assistance. Anyone who claims many young people collect checks and seem fine, think again. This generalization is very mean to people like myself who are not phonies. You may believe we are perfectly healthy, active young people, but you may not have all your facts.

    I can share a bit about my life. I worked very hard growing up, paid taxes from ages 19-25, worked full time on winter and summer breaks, graduated college, and planned on working as much as possible. I even managed to graduate with no debt in 2004. Then, when I was 25, I was rear ended by a young inexperienced driver, had major neck, hand, knee, nerve trauma. I could not work a job as I had done before. My judge agreed there was no job in my state that would accommodate someone who can’t sit, stand or balance properly, etc. I spend my days reading, relearning coordination and balance, and doing small amounts of activity. If I can ever do better for myself, I would like to do something for the disabled community. They are truly not treated like living, needy people. Everything costs, especially cars and computers and they really are important to us. My fiancée has to drive for me. He also has to finance our laptop, my income just covers housing and a few items. I guess what I would like people to know is that many people don’t choose to be lazy, pretending or abusing the system. Obviously still being young I can say I am truly dependent on disability and part of the REAL 5 percent. If anyone has a suggestion for dealing with people who think they can label me, or state one is fully-functional to someone just because the disability is not on the eyes view, I am open to hear them.

    God Bless… Jenny

  3. Galey C. says:

    What a great website this is! This post was amazing! Keep it up!

  4. Karen says:

    I don’t get this blog! Doesn’t seem to cover any issues that are that are of pressing concerns to the disabled community.

  5. bizworldusa says:

    This is an excellent post regarding the statistics of disabled persons.

    The govt should provide more services to disabled persons.

    Thank you for posting this great article.

  6. Wanda says:

    Try contacting your states Dept. of Vocational Rehabilitation in your area. Once you get authorization for it, there are employment services available to help people with disabilities gain competitive employment from part to full-time, in a job that fits with your disability.

    • Karen says:

      I have sought out vocational rehabilitation and found them to really lack in relevant services to aid me in gaining employment. Most or many disabled persons live at or below the fed. set standards of poverty. This means I cannot afford basic things such as a computer and Internet service, transportation to and from school and housing while I seek training. These are the hurdles that many disabled, including myself, need to be successful at getting training to find meaningful employment. There currently is no aide offered in these areas. If your answer to this is the current services offered by the county welfare systems, that is a joke. What little financial help you are allowed sets failure. Affordable housing has such long waiting lists to get on that it basically doesn’t exist. There is a very poor public transportation system where I live. All my vocational counselor could offer me was assistance in applying for school and filling out tuition assistance forms. I can do that myself. When will there ever be some kind of real assistance offered to aide the disabled in finding employment?

  7. Steve says:

    I am a Vet that was in the Air Force and wish I stayed in til I retired but I didn’t, my mistake . I got out and in 1981 I worked as a Roughneck in the Oil Field, for those that do not know what a Roughnek is. I got hurt on that job and had a Spinal fusion done. After that I had my own business going as a Painter Contractor and when the economy went bad I had to move my family back to my hometown. After using all my savings & money up to find a job. After a while, my wife finding a job first, we were just getting by, so to say. I FINALLY went to work for the newest Dept. of Defense Base, the “10th Mountain Division” and to this day I am proud of the Soldiers of the Army. I worked there for 20 plus years and was happy with my job and the people I worked with as a Civilian Worker. I won many awards for my service time each year and even won Civilian of the Quarter, which was between over 1,100 plus people for the Dept. of Public Works. I was PROUD to help the soldiers and their families when they went to war as I felt I was doing a job helping the families as their husband or wife was protecting our rights to be free. I guess it’s the longest job I worked for, 20 plus years, and then one day I got injured and badly and became permanently disabled and excepted under the rules and laws of being injured and have been 100% disabled since 2005. Had to move a few times, as I had to file Bankruptcy on my credit cards as I wasn’t making enough money to cover all the bills then and as time went by, the injury does take a toll on the body as you get older and have more surgeries and other medical needs. Now I feel that I am getting harrassed as I live in IN. Now due to my wife’s father having a heart attack and I know what’s its like not to have parents. I have told my counselor that I could not find a doctor or any kind of Facility to help me, so I spent money, owe money to my mother and father-in-law so I could see my doctor in FL every 3 months as I am on Narcotics for my severe pain and implants inside me, it’s so unbearable. I have told the counselor this and all that’s said is I personally can’t help, it’s your duty to find a provider that takes Federal Work Comp and I called so far 52 doctors and such and NONE have taken it, so back to FL I go every 3 months or I will go thru withdrawls and more pain without pain medication. I did all the provider searches on the web and such, but no help from OWCP. What is a man to do? I feel bad enough with my wife doing everything. I feel Like a LOSER among other things!! I feel I am being downsized now if the doctor doesn’t put me at 100% disabled even though so many doctors before, at least 6 to 7, have in the past and present but OWCP will send folks to the doctors that will be on their side to say “NO” he or she can work. It’s sad how the SYSTEM works after all that time I put in and I was so close to full retirement and probably wouldn’t have retired after 30 years. I would have went on as I loved my job and I miss it DAILY and now with the economy like this, I feel I will be AXED now. One less to pay. I see I have paid my dues and now I see my wife scared to death and I see us going under. Now I see why Soldiers are committing suicide for many reasons, not just because they went to war. It goes the same way for Civilians, also. But I carry on and try my best to find someone to say it like it is about me and many others that are true and not fakes. God Bless this Country, Our Soldiers and Civilians. GOD BLESS AMERICA!!!

    • Tina P. says:

      Go to the VA, they will mail your pills to you, you can get treatment there also. Best way to go. My husband, who is deceased now, went to the VA for meds and treatment. So sorry for the pain it has caused you. Proud of our soldiers!!! Thank you for service to our country! Hope this helps.

  8. James P. says:

    Great information, thanks.

  9. James P. says:

    I need a phone # or how could I get in touch with someone?

  10. Kirsten L. says:

    Technically, my condition is considered a disability (bipolar disorder, ADHD), however I don’t consider myself “disabled”. I am an extremely successful management consultant and business owner who has never required assistance from government disability to date.

    (In full disclosure: Last year, when I was laid off after 11 years with my previous company, I received Unemployment from Sept.-Jan. I landed my dream job with a very cool and awesome company… Even with job hunting during the holidays!)

    The reason I mention my medical conditions and the fact that I have a very successful career is that having a disability and being disabled are two completely different things.

    The abuse of Disability in this country really bothers me because it sets a very bad precedent for people who are truly “disabled”.

    I’m not disabled. I simply live with disability (according to the definition of disability in the ADA). The ADA protects me in the event that an employer discriminates based on my disability.

    With my prior employer, after 10 years without a single serious incident, a fellow employee harassed me about my ADHD to the point where I had to evoke my rights per the ADA.

    I was assigned an ADA advocate and had to get a note from my doctor saying I needed to pick up prescriptions once a month (Adderall can’t be called into a pharmacy, I have to pick it up) and needed a quiet place to do conference calls because the wall-less cube farms that offices have turned into are impossible to concentrate in for a “normal” person, let alone someone with ADHD.

    I haven’t needed anything like that at my new job, and this was the only incident in my 15 year career to date.

    I’m an extremely driven, hard-working person, which is why I couldn’t fathom using my medical condition as an excuse to sit on my butt and collect money from other taxpayers when I know I’m fine… Better than fine, in fact, in my prime!

    I’m a realist, however, and I know the nature of my disease. I know there may come a time when medications stop working, when there isn’t a surgical option and I’m unable to work. I may even have to be institutionalized. THAT’S what “Disabled” means.

    My mom, a Vietnam Vet, is disabled… For my entire childhood, she worked 2 jobs to take care of us (and my dad, who had his own issues)… But then she got really sick. She still tried to work, and it nearly killed her. Her body failed her. That’s disabled.

    I live in a neighborhood where people are younger than me (I’m in my 30s) and they’re collecting disability. They’re out there every day running around with their kids, blasting music in their thump cars, blaring music until 3-4am, speeding up and down the street on motorcycles, covered in bling and nice clothes…. They don’t look very disabled to me.

    It took my mom multiple times to get approved for disability, all while she was so incredibly sick and the bills were piling up… Yet it seems so easy for all of these people! How the heck do they get away with it?

    The people who I know who are truly disabled are in constant pain or in a constant struggle just to stay semi-healthy. They’re not acting like life is one giant party.

    My goal is to never be disabled. I want to stay healthy as long as possible. (That’s right… I may have a disability, but that doesn’t mean I can’t be healthy, too!) My parents taught me well… They taught me to be self-reliant and to never burden others. I don’t want taxpayers paying for me. I have a very diversified retirement plan across different types of investments that weathered the recession pretty well. Hopefully, the American people will never have to pay a penny for me.

    I don’t want to live that painful, lonely existence that seems to accompany being on disability (for those who really are disabled). Working gives me a purpose and social interaction… And I like my job!

    As for the problems with disability fraud….

    How about the doctors who lie or stretch to truth about the people who are obviously not disabled? These 20-somethings and 30-somethings living their charmed lives on our dime have to be certified as having a disability that causes them to not be able to work by someone, right? Who makes that call?

    We should also look at these sketchy lawyers who advertise on TV/online and claim they can get anyone disability. How much do they have to do with the epidemic of disability fraud?

    Why do the media and politicians always assume it is a breakdown in regulations? It’s so easy to point the finger at government, but that won’t fix the problem. There is only so much that red tape and regulations can do if the roots are rotten. Reviewing disability applications won’t get you anywhere if the doctors are lying or if lawyers are taking money to find a doctor who will say anything to make a profit.

  11. Kazimiera R. says:

    I write from another country, from UE.
    This blog is very interests and important.
    I thank you very much!

  12. Pamela says:

    People that have been denied disability after going through appeals, waiting 3 yrs, losing all there work credits. I have worked since age 12, had my first job being taxed at age 14, have had 5 children, stayed at home during the day, worked nights so I would not have to pay for day care. When I was 22, I had a very bad car accident. When I was 42, after all those yrs of hard labor, I was not able to do the same type of work. The judge told me to be a telemarketer, the state doctor and 3 other doctors said I could not go back to same type of work. I was still denied. My husband paid $900.00 a month just for my insurance, not including medicines, now it’s ruined my life, my husband and I are separated, and now my condition is worse, I have no work credits, which no one told me I was losing. They ask now, “Would you like to be retrained?” Why not at the beginning ask me to be retrained? Now I get SSI. I can never own anything. I am a US citizen, but yet anyone can come into the country who has never worked and get SSI. That stinks.

  13. Harley B. says:

    We the people of the United States need to declare WAR on greed. Greed has permiated our whole country from top to bottom. We the people need to start the WAR on greed by nationalizing our health care system, everyone is entitled to health care without the stress of “Can I pay for it, is my doctor in the right network, is the care needed covered by insurance, or can I afford the co-pay, not to mention can I afford the overpriced dangerous perscriptions drugs perscribed for my condition?” Nationalized health care would reduce the number of people on disablity because health problems would be taken care of in a timely maner to avoid long term disability, thus putting people back to work and back on the tax rolls to pay for health care. Nationalized health care would reduce stress people are under making them happier and willing to work with each other to get things done instead of worrying which party they belong to. We are all Americans that need to rekindle the collaborative American spirit. I know all this because I was denied disablity, and lost 20 some years of good health and gainful employment because nobody would fix my back, a back that I hurt at work.

  14. LESLY F. says:


    I send my comment on behalf of we the people and citizens of the United States. I am a volunteer typing on behalf of all the persons who became disabled, and have been on disability long term. To the authority who’s concern is the people in this country, I ask for changes in the White House and states and cities to help people who became disabled or will become disabled. We need help – god’s help and people’s help. Thank you and may god bless you. Peace.


    Mr. & Mrs. Lesly F.
    Cambridge, Mass. 02140

  15. Katie says:

    There are people out there faking it because they lost their unemployment, I know because I have seen it. Some people are landscapers or tree trimmers, and work minimum hours, and collect disability. I feel that is totally unfair, isn’t there a review? I am numb in my hands and have pain all over, I was hit – 2 accidents, serious, had 2 surgeries so far, but need to do more tests. I live in agony every day, cannot work, cannot get health care. I was born in the United States of America, forget the fakers, you can tell. People who truly hurt can’t get disability, can’t get to court swiftly, people loosing homes, a lot clogging up the system. I am disgusted that an old neighborhood drunk, crashes a motorcycle because he is drunk driving, and he got disability already way before me, and still crashing his Harley drunk. The government is helping pay for his habit, he may kill someone!

    Consider this, I am in Broward County, Florida, and I am sick over this, hurt, sad, lost, and the people that hit me are going on with their lives, not even a thought in their head every day.

  16. Michael C. says:


    I was wondering if you could help me understand the process of submitting blogs, as I have not done this before.
    Thank you for this great resource!


  17. MIRRIAM L. O. says:

    How does the government in the U.S help people with disabilities? Many in our country are beggars in the streets. How do you recommend govt to assist them?

  18. James A. T. Sr. says:

    The amount of severly disabled Americans working for the federal government isn’t anywhere near what it should be with all this hoopla. 25 straight years of disabled Americans hired at a -5.4% and abled bodied Americans get hired at a +7.6% rate.

    Count us out for the federal government giving disabled Americans a level playing field!

  19. Mrs. Eileen C., widow to Hernandez, WWII says:

    I know that we are in an Economic Crisis, but work needs to be done for the citizens. We cannot abandon People with Disabilities due to the Bureauocracy, and prevalence studies of Health Conditions such as Multiple Sclerosis (MS) have to be done. How come we cannot repeat the mistakes of the Parliament from Canada?

  20. Mrs. Eileen C. says:

    Counting people with disabilities has been long delayed by bureauocracy and prevalence studies to health conditions like Multiple Sclerosis (MS). How come we cannot repeat the mistakes of the Parliament from Canada?

  21. John O. says:


    My name is John and I have a quick question about your blog! Could you please email me?

    Thank you,