Understanding disability statistics in the Census and the Survey of Disability, Ageing and Carers
An explanation of disability data available in the Census and other ABS sources
Collecting data on disability statistics
The Census collects information on whether a person has a need for assistance with core activities due to a long-term health condition, a disability or old age. Core activities are defined as those which are essential to everyday living: self-care, mobility and communication. This aims to identify people with more severe forms of disability that need personal support, rather than being a broad measure of people with a disability. The Survey of Disability, Ageing and Carers (SDAC) collects a broad range of information about people with a disability including levels of severity. It is the recommended source of disability prevalence data in Australia.
Knowing more about the needs of people with disability contributes to the evidence base for informing policies and planning to drive better outcomes. The SDAC asks many more questions than the Census and therefore also collects information about those with less severe disabilities. This conceptual paper provides information on the differences, strengths and key uses of disability-related data from each of these collections.
The Census provides a rich snapshot of all people in the country on Census Night and is the leading source of information for small population groups and areas. It collects a range of information about the number and key characteristics of the Australian population, including:
- core activity need for assistance
- living and housing arrangements.
We use responses to the core activity need for assistance questions to identify people who require assistance with self-care, mobility or communication. The Census core activity need for assistance measure is conceptually comparable to the SDAC concept of 'Profound or severe core activity limitation', the population for whom service delivery has the most consequence. Census data helps service providers and governments plan what local facilities, services and support are required, such as in-home support, respite care and support to carers.
Survey of Disability, Ageing and Carers (SDAC)
The SDAC is the most detailed and comprehensive source of Australian disability data. It is the recommended source of data for providing accurate disability prevalence rates and is designed to measure and provide data on the entire spectrum of disability. The SDAC has been developed to align with international measures of disability as described in the International Classification of Functioning, Disability and Health (ICF). The large number of questions in the SDAC to assess disability levels limits the time available to ask respondents additional questions about the social and economic context of their lives. Therefore, we use the information collected in the Census to provide some of this context for people with a core activity need for assistance.
Short Disability Module
We also collect disability information in a number of our social surveys through the ‘short disability module’ – a set of sixteen questions designed to measure the frequency of disability. While the short disability module is not as effective as the SDAC in identifying disability (and therefore not recommended for prevalence) it does provide useful information about the characteristics of people with disability relative to those without. The module provides this information across a range of social dimensions such as health, income and housing, depending on the survey in which it is included. Information on the disability measure output from the short disability module can be found in ABS Sources of Disability Information.
Together, the SDAC, the Census and surveys which include the Short Disability Module help build the picture of disability in Australia. Comparisons of the three sources are outlined below.
|Census of Population and Housing||Survey of Disability, Ageing and Carers||Short Disability Module|
Measures the number and key characteristics of people in Australia on Census Night, including where people live, age and sex, ethnicity, income, education, and living and housing arrangements.
The most detailed and comprehensive source of Australian disability data.
Used to identify the frequency of disability in a range of ABS social surveys including:
|Scope||Persons usually resident in Australia and present in Australia on Census Night|
Detailed information is collected about people with disability, older people (aged 65 years and over) and carers of people with disability, a long-term health condition, or older people.
A small amount of information is also collected about people not in these populations, so the demographic and socio-economic characteristics of the three target populations can be compared with the general population.
Includes people in urban and rural areas in all states and territories, living in either:
Excludes people living in:
|See scope of relevant survey|
Conducted every 5 years
Most recent Census: 2021
Every 3 to 6 years
Most recent SDAC: 2018
|Differs by survey|
Most forms were self-completed online or using a paper form.
The last SDAC was conducted by personal visits to households.
|Differs by survey|
|Questions collecting disability information|
A set of four questions to derive ‘core activity need for assistance’.
A large, specialist survey using detailed interviewer administered questions. The SDAC uses over 160 questions just to determine whether a person has a disability.
A module with 16 questions and a series of prompt cards.
Detailed demographic and socio-economic characteristics of those with a core activity need for assistance, including geographic distribution:
Provides a reliable measure of national disability prevalence.
Inclusion in ABS social surveys, allows analysis of the different social characteristics and circumstances of people with disability relative to those without disability.
ABS sources on Disability data
- The Disability, Ageing and Carers, Australia: Summary of Findings publication includes detailed information about the 2018 Survey of Disability, Ageing and Carers.
- The ABS Sources of Disability Information publication includes further detail on the different disability data sources collected by the ABS and their suitability for various information needs.