4429.0 - Profiles of Disability, Australia, 2009  
ARCHIVED ISSUE Released at 11:30 AM (CANBERRA TIME) 27/06/2012  First Issue
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The approach used by the ABS (and most other statistical bodies) in defining disability lies not in whether a person has a condition or not, but in whether that condition restricts their daily living. For example, a person may report loss of sight as a health condition, but if they are able to see and function "normally" by wearing corrective glasses, they are not considered (for statistical purposes) to have a disability. In contrast, a person who, even when wearing glasses, is still restricted in everyday activities by their vision, does have a disability.

The Survey of Disability, Ageing and Carers (SDAC) defines disability as any limitation, restriction or impairment which restricts everyday activities and has lasted or is likely to last for at least six months (Endnote 1). In 2009, an estimated four million people in Australia reported a disability (18.5%).


After adjusting for changes in the age structure of the population there was a decrease in the age standardised prevalence of disability between 2003 (20.4%) and 2009 (18.1%). Much of this was attributed to a decline in the proportion of Australians disabled by physical health conditions such as arthritis and heart disease (see Main Disabling Condition section - Disability, Australia, 2009 cat.no. 4446.0).


In the SDAC, disability is described by levels of severity. Of all people with disability, most (87%) had specific restrictions. This meant that they had limitations in one or more of the everyday core activity areas of self-care, mobility and communication or that they had a schooling or employment restriction. The remainder (13%) had disability that did not cause a specific limitation or restriction considered in the SDAC.

The SDAC identifies four levels of core activity limitation. Of all people in Australia, 634 600 (2.9%) were classified as having a profound limitation in one or more of the core-activities (Diagram 1); 636 000 (2.9%) had a severe limitation; 659 200 (3.0%) had a moderate limitation and 1 214 500 (5.6%) had a mild limitation (Diagram 1).

The four levels of limitation are defined as follows:

Profound - the person is unable to do, or always needs help with, a core activity task.

Severe - the person:

  • sometimes needs help with a core activity task
  • has difficulty understanding or being understood by family or friends
  • can communicate more easily using sign language or other non-spoken forms of communication.

Moderate - the person needs no help, but has difficulty with a core activity task.

Mild - the person needs no help and has no difficulty with any of the core activity tasks, but:
  • uses aids and equipment
  • cannot easily walk 200 metres
  • cannot walk up and down stairs without a handrail
  • cannot easily bend to pick up an object from the floor
  • cannot use public transport
  • can use public transport, but needs help or supervision
  • needs no help or supervision, but has difficulty using public transport.

Further information on core-activity limitations and restrictions can be found in the glossary.

Diagram 1 shows the number of people by the severity of their disability, as estimated from SDAC 2009.


Diagram - number of people by the severity of their disability or health condition


The prevalence of disability increases as people age and develop conditions that cause restrictions in daily living (Graph 1). In 2009, 9% of children aged 5-14 years had a reported disability, compared with 28% of people aged 55-59 years and 81% of people aged 85 years and over.

Graph - age specific disability rates, Australia 2009

There was no significant difference in the overall rates of disability between males (18%) and females (19%), but there were significant differences across age/sex groups (Graph 2). Males aged 5-14 years had higher rates of profound or severe core-activity limitation (6.6%) compared to females of the same age (3.0%). For people in their 70s however, this pattern had reversed and of those aged 85 years or over, women had significantly higher rates of profound/severe core-activity limitation (58%) than men (45%) in the same age bracket.

Graph - age specific disability status rates, by sex, Australia 2009


Due to the association with age, disability prevalence is highest in states and territories with a higher proportion of people in older age groups. Therefore, disability prevalence is highest in Tasmania. However, even if age standardisation to allow for this difference is performed, Tasmania still has the highest disability prevalence rate, with minimal differences between the other states.

Graph - prevalence of disability (age standardised rates) by state or territory of usual residence


The main conditions associated with disability in 2009 were back problems (15.6%), arthritis (14.8%), hearing loss (6%), leg damage from injury/accident (3%), depression (3%) and asthma (3%).

The main conditions associated with profound/severe disability were similar: back problems (13.0%), arthritis (12.8%), dementia (4.0%), autism and related disorders (3.2%), depression (3.1%) and stroke (3.1%).


Approximately 230,000 children aged 5-20 years had a schooling restriction in 2009. Of these children:
  • 3% had a profound schooling restriction (unable to attend school);
  • 49% had a severe schooling restriction (attended special school/classes);
  • 46% had a moderate schooling restriction (needed time off school, had difficulty at school or needed special assessment procedures); and
  • 2% had a mild schooling restriction (used special computer/equipment, had special transport or access arrangements).

  1. Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2009, Disability, Ageing and Carers, Australia: Summary of Findings, 2009, cat.no. 4430.0, Australia