At least 17.7% of people in Australia live with a disability according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics (2). That is around 4.4 million people, or every 1-in-6 Australians, split almost evenly between females (17.8%) and males (17.6%). While that number represents a good portion of our population, it does not describe the diversity among people with disability and how our population is changing over time.
What are the Major Disabilities?
Not every disability is the same, and no two institutions categorise disability the same way. The National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS), which is a government-run program providing support and services for people with disability across Australia categorises disability into four groups: cognitive and intellectual disability, sensory and speech disability, psychosocial disability, and physical and acquired brain injury disability (3). While some groups will overlap with others, we’ll use these categories going forward. Unless otherwise indicated, all definitions and statistics are taken from the 2018 “Disability, Ageing and Carers, Australia: Summary of Findings” (2).
Cognitive/Intellectual Disability and Neurodiverse People
Australian sociologist Judy Singer characterises neurodiversity as “the limitless variability of human cognition” (4). It describes the variety in which different peoples brains function and how it results in atypical information processing and behaviour. It includes most cognitive and intellectual disabilities like fragile-X syndrome and down syndrome, which describe conditions affecting neurodevelopment, cognitive function, and skills involving motor function and communication skills. It also includes neuroatypical conditions like attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), dyslexia, and autism.
Currently, over 700,000 (2-3%) Australians reported having an intellectual or developmental disability in 2018, a number which has stayed mostly consistent for the past twenty years. Of the different age groups: children (0-14), adults (15-64), elderly (65+), children make up the bulk of the neurodiverse population, with one-in-twenty having an intellectual disability. Children above the age of five (5-14 years) are more than five times as likely to live with an intellectual or psychosocial disability than children under five years of age (0-4 years).
Sensory and Speech disability
Sensory disabilities affect one or more of a person’s senses like sight, smell, touch, taste, and spatial awareness. These also include sensory processing disorders like autism, as some people with autism report hypersensitivity to sensory experiences like touch, noise, and light (5). Just under 250,000 Australians live with a sensory disability, of which Deafness and blindness are most common. 1-in-6 Australians report having some level of hearing loss, and just under 600,000 people live with a vision impairment (6,7).
A speech disability (sometimes called a communication disability) affects a person’s ability to produce sounds that create words and includes conditions like dysarthria, apraxia, and stuttering. 1.2 million Australians live with a speech disability (8), with the children and the elderly making up the highest proportions. Just under 130,000 children below the age of 13 live with a speech disability and over 750,000 elderly adults, and this distribution has remained consistent since 2003.
A psychosocial disability emerges when a mental health condition interferes with a person’s ability to work, communicate, maintain their physical health, and socialise. It includes conditions like schizophrenia, depression, or borderline personality disorder. Psychosocial disability often impacts someone’s capacity for planning, engaging in training, education, employment, and other social activities.
Psychoses and other mood disorders make up 7.6% of the disabled population, and phobia disorders, chronic anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorders, and somatoform disorders—like body dysmorphic disorder—make up 6.1%. Three million Australians live with anxiety or depression, and almost half of Australians aged between 16-85 years old will report experiencing a mental health condition at some point in their lifetime (9). Overall, close to a quarter of people (23.2%) reported having a psychosocial disability, an increase of 1.7 since 2015 (21.5%) (10).
Physical Disability and Acquired Brain Injury
Physical disabilities affect bodily movement and control due to alterations to the nervous system. Physical disabilities can result from genetic disorders like cerebral palsy and muscular dystrophy or be acquired from illness or brain or spinal cord injuries. Other neurological conditions that affect a person’s physicality include chronic fatigue syndrome and epilepsy.
Physical disorders make up over three-quarters (76.8%) of people with disability in Australia. Musculoskeletal disorders are the most common physical disability (29.6%), with back problems making up 12.6% and arthritis 12.7%. Just under 1-in-10 Australians use mobility aids, and less than 5% use a wheelchair.
Age and Disability
The most common disability reported amongst children was autism spectrum disorder (26.8%), followed by asthma (26.8%) and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (15%). The number of children who reported having an anxiety or phobic disorder increased from almost 5% since 2015. And Children above the age of five (5-14 years) are more than five times as likely to live with an intellectual or psychosocial disability than children under five years of age (0-4 years).
Twice as many young boys (aged 0-14 years) reported having speech or sensory disability than girls, and close to twice reported having intellectual disabilities. Children above the age of five (5-14 years) are more than five times as likely to live with an intellectual or psychosocial disability than children under five years of age (0-4 years). And twice as many older children report having a physical disability than younger children. Rates of disability generally increase with age; however, there is some variability in young children due to the challenges with diagnosis. Meaning some children with disability do not receive formal diagnoses until they reach school age.
Working Adults and the Elderly
2.1 million working-aged Australian’s (15-64 years) live with a disability. For adults, the rate of disability diagnoses increases exponentially with age: the older you are, the more likely you are to be diagnosed with a disability. For example, a quarter of Australians aged between 60-64 years of age are living with disability. That number doubles to half of Australians above 65—That’s 1.9 million Australians or two-in-five adults—and more than doubles again to over four-in-five adults over the age of 90. This rise is due to our aging population and Australians’ general increase in life expectancy.
The Future of Australians with Disability
There were 400,000 more Australians diagnosed with disability in 2018 than recorded by the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) in 2009 (4 million people). That was 1-in-5 Australians in 2009, compared to the 1-in-6 Australians today (9). You may be wondering, if there are more people with disability, why is the ratio lower? We can explain this by looking at the overall population. While the number of Australians with disability has increased, the rate of increase is less than the increase of the general population. In other words, there are more Australians in total.
This doesn’t mean that the Australian government is slacking to support people with disability. For instance, the NDIS—mentioned throughout this article—is a free government-funded scheme offering support and services for people with disability across Australia. The scheme is in addition to other disability benefits and is part of Australia’s commitment to supporting those living with a disability. It provides information on the disability support available in each state and territory of Australia, offers funding to assist participants with their independence, and sets up connections to community services such as schools, libraries, sports clubs, doctors, and support groups (11).
As of 2022, over 500,000 people have had an NDIS plan since the scheme began five years ago (3). 15% of the participants were younger than seven, and almost two-thirds were under the age of thirty-five (1). The most common type of disabilities for people using the scheme was autism spectrum disorder (30.9%), followed by cerebral palsy other intellectual disabilities like down syndrome (20.2%) and psychosocial disabilities (9.1%). Some disability types are made of entirely of younger people like developmental delay, which is a term used to describe a delay in childhood development (12).
According to the World Health Organisation, the number of people with disability is increasing worldwide (13). Almost everyone is expected to develop a disability at some time in their life, so building good support options like the NDIS is more valuable than ever. Knowing who the Australians living with a disability are and serving the specific needs that fosters their independence means more Australians can work, be educated, and feel included throughout society.
- Australian Bureau of Statistics. Characteristics of National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) participants, 2019: Analysis of linked data [Internet]. 2021 [cited 2022 Feb 12]. Available from: https://www.abs.gov.au/articles/characteristics-national-disability-insurance-scheme-ndis-participants-2019-analysis-linked-data
- Australian Bureau of Statistics. Disability, Ageing and Carers, Australia: Summary of Findings, 2018 [Internet]. 2020 [cited 2022 Feb 11]. Available from: https://www.abs.gov.au/statistics/health/disability/disability-ageing-and-carers-australia-summary-findings/latest-release
- NDIS. Quarterly Reports 2021-22 [Internet]. [cited 2022 Feb 12]. Available from: https://www.ndis.gov.au/about-us/publications/quarterly-reports
- Singer J. Reflections on the Neurodiversity Paradigm: What is Neurodiversity? [Internet]. Reflections on the Neurodiversity Paradigm. 2019 [cited 2022 Feb 13]. Available from: https://neurodiversity2.blogspot.com/p/what.html
- Types of sensory disabilities | Aruma [Internet]. Aruma Disability Services. 2018 [cited 2022 Feb 14]. Available from: https://www.aruma.com.au/about-us/about-disability/types-of-disabilities/types-of-sensory-disabilities/
- Hearing Care Industry Association. Hearing Care Industry Association [Internet]. [cited 2022 Feb 13]. Available from: https://www.hcia.com.au/
- Vision 2020 Australia. A snapshot of blindness and low vision services in Australia [Internet]. Vision 2020 Australia. [cited 2022 Feb 13]. Available from: https://www.vision2020australia.org.au/resources/a-snapshot-of-blindness-and-low-vision-services-in-australia/
- Disability, Ageing and Carers, Australia: Summary of Findings, 2015 [Internet]. Australian Bureau of Statistics. c=AU; o=Commonwealth of Australia; ou=Australian Bureau of Statistics; 2016 [cited 2022 Feb 14]. Available from: https://www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/abs@.nsf/Previousproducts/4430.0Main%20Features12015?opendocument&tabname=Summary&prodno=4430.0&issue=2015&num=&view=
- Australian Bureau of Statistics. National Survey of Mental Health and Wellbeing: Summary of Results, 2007 [Internet]. 2008 [cited 2022 Feb 12]. Available from: https://www.abs.gov.au/statistics/health/mental-health/national-survey-mental-health-and-wellbeing-summary-results/latest-release
- Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS). Survey of Disability, Ageing and Carers 2015 [Internet]. c=AU; o=Commonwealth of Australia; ou=Australian Bureau of Statistics; 2016 [cited 2022 Feb 11]. Available from: https://www.abs.gov.au/AUSSTATS/abs@.nsf/Lookup/4430.0Main+Features12015?OpenDocument=
- NDIS. Understanding the NDIS | NDIS [Internet]. National Disability Insurance Scheme. [cited 2022 Feb 13]. Available from: https://www.ndis.gov.au/understanding
- Developmental delay and the early childhood approach | NDIS [Internet]. National Disability Insurance Scheme. [cited 2022 Feb 14]. Available from: https://www.ndis.gov.au/understanding/families-and-carers/early-childhood-approach/developmental-delay-and-early-childhood-approach#what-is-developmental-delay
- Disability and Health [Internet]. World Health Organization. [cited 2022 Feb 14]. Available from: https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/disability-and-health