Are one in five people really disabled?

According to official statistics 19% of working aged adults, or one in five people self-report as being ‘disabled’, and this figure has been widely used in the media to promote pro-disability programming.

How do we Define Disability?

According to the formal, legal, UK definition under the 2010 Equality Act someone is disable if they ‘have a physical or mental impairment that has a substantial and ‘long-term’ negative effect on your ability to do normal daily activities’.

That 19% figure sounds like a lot of people, in fact it is a lot of people – that’s 13 million people in the United Kingdom.

But maybe it’s only a lot because when we think of ‘disability’ we tend to immediately think of people will physical and very visible disabilities, the classic image of a disable person being someone in a wheelchair, which the media generally doesn’t help with its over-reliance of wheelchair users to signify they are ‘representing the disabled’.

In fact there are ‘only’ 1.2 million wheelchair users in Britain, or less than one in ten people who classify as disabled.

How do we measure disability ?

The 19%, or one five figure comes from the UK’s Family Resources Survey, the latest published result coming from the 2018/19 round of surveys.

This is a pretty serious set of surveys in which respondents from 20 000 households answer questions for an hour, some related to disability.

The Questions which determined whether someone classifies as disable or not are as follows:

  • Have you had any long term negative health conditions in the last 12 months? If you respond yes, you move on to the next two questions:
  • Do any of these health conditions affect you in any of the following areas – listed here are the top answers: mobility/ stamina, breathing or fatigue/ mental health/ dexterity/ other 
  • Final question: do any of your conditions or illness impact your ability to carry out your day to day activities -the responses here are on a 4 point likehert scale ranging from a not at all to a lot.

Anyone ticking YES/ YES and either ‘my illness affects me a lot or a little’ is classified by the UK government as disabled.

Validity problems with this way of measuring disability

The problem with the above is that if you have Asthma and similar mild conditions you could be classified as disabled, and this doesn’t tie in with the government’s own definition of disability which requires that someone has a condition which ‘substantially’ affects their ability to carry out every day tasks.

Stating that you have asthma which affects your breathing a little, does NOT IMO qualify you as disabled, but it does in this survey.

The government doesn’t publish the breakdown of responses to the final disability question, but it’s roughly a 50-50 split between those answering ‘a lot’ and ‘a little.

In conclusion, it might be more accurate to say that one in ten people is disabled.

Relevance to A-level sociology

This short update should be a useful contemporary example to illustrate some of the validity problems associated with using social surveys, especially for topics with a high degree of subjectivity such as what disability means!

NB – I gleaned the above information from Radio Four’s More or Less, the episode which aired on Weds 10th Feb 2021.

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