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This page is a summary of the full briefing paper, which you can download by clicking the button above.

Defining disability

Most official statistics use a definition of disability that is consistent with the Government Statistical Service (GSS)’s harmonised definition. This is designed to reflect the core definition of disability that appears in legal terms in the Equality Act 2010, and the definition in the Disability Discrimination Act 1995, which applies in Northern Ireland.

To measure disability based on this definition, survey respondents are asked whether they have a physical or mental health condition or illness that has lasted or is expected to last 12 months or more, and whether the condition and/or illness reduces their ability to carry out day-to-day activities. A person who answers yes to both questions is considered disabled.

How many people have a disability?

The latest estimates from the Department for Work and Pensions’ Family Resources Survey indicate that 16.0 million people in the UK had a disability in the 2021/22 financial year. This represents 24% of the total population.

The proportion of the population reporting a disability has risen by 6 percentage points since 2002/03, up from 18%. Most of this increase has been observed over the past decade, with disability prevalence up by 5 percentage points from 19% in 2010/11.

The prevalence of disability rises with age: in 2021/22 around 11% of children in the UK were disabled, compared to 23% of working-age adults and 45% of adults over State Pension age. Most people aged 80 and over reported a disability (58%).

Outcomes for disabled people

In 2019, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) produced a series of publications examining Outcomes for disabled people in the UK, which it has updated in 2020 and 2021.

The series of charts below summarise key points from the ONS analysis. This shows that a range of inequalities exist between disabled and non-disabled people in terms of education, employment, housing, well-being and experiences of crime.

Disability benefits

The number of people entitled to receive a disability benefit in Great Britain has risen over time, from 3.9 million in May 2002 to 6.3 million in February 2023, and is expected to rise further.

The proportion of the population claiming a disability benefit varies in different parts of the country. Local authorities coloured in the two darkest shades of green on the map below have higher extra-costs disability benefit caseloads than the national average (9.6%).

Areas with the highest proportion of their population claiming extra costs disability benefits tend to be concentrated in Wales and the North East of England, as well as in Scotland, the North West and East of England. The lowest levels are found in the South of England. 

Transport

On average, disabled people take fewer trips per year than non-disabled people. Those whose ability to carry out day-to-day activities is “limited a lot”, as opposed to “limited a little”, have an even lower average number of journeys.

The chart below shows that both disabled and non-disabled adults in England rely predominantly on car travel: this accounted for 62% of trips taken by disabled people and 60% taken by non-disabled people in 2021.

The impact of the coronavirus pandemic

The pandemic has been a particularly challenging time for disabled people in the UK.

Estimates of Covid-19 mortality risk by disability status for England, produced by the ONS, found that people with disabilities had an elevated risk of death from the disease across all three waves of the pandemic.

The ONS has also analysed the social impact of the coronavirus on disabled people in Great Britain, up to December 2021. This showed that disabled people reported lower levels of well-being than non-disabled people throughout all stages of the pandemic.

A further legacy of the coronavirus pandemic is ‘long Covid’ – a term used to describe ongoing symptoms following Covid-19 infection which persist for more than four weeks. The ONS estimates of the prevalence of self-reported long Covid indicate that 1.9 million people in the UK were experiencing long Covid as of March 2023, representing 2.9% of the population. Of these, around 1.3 million people had symptoms that had lasted for more than a year and 762,000 had symptoms lasting for more than two years.

While the long-term effects of the pandemic are not yet known, data so far appears to suggest that disability prevalence may have risen.


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