The 17th meeting of the Washington Group on Disability Statistics (WG)

Sydney, Australia, 31st October – 2nd November 2017

David W. Kalisch, Australian Statistician (Session 1 – 31st October 2017)

Acknowledgement of country

Good morning. I would like to begin by acknowledging the Gadigal (Gad-i-gal) people of the Eora (Yura) Nation, the Traditional Custodians of the land we are meeting on today and pay my respects to their Elders both past and present. I would also like to acknowledge members of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community present here today.


On behalf of the Australian Bureau of Statistics and our co-hosts, the Australian Government Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, I would like to welcome all our guests who have travelled from near and far to join us here in beautiful Sydney Australia.

As Australian Statistician, and the head of the Australian Bureau of Statistics, it is a pleasure to be here today to welcome you to the 17th meeting of the Washington Group on Disability Statistics.

This meeting provides a valuable opportunity for experts in the field of disability statistics to come together and I look forward to the meaningful contributions from all participants.

Introduction – overview of the work of the ABS and importance of the NSO

Let me start with a brief overview of the role of national statistical organisations, such as the Australian Bureau of Statistics, or ABS.

Our statistics provide trusted, contemporary information about our economy, our society, our population and our environment. These statistics provide valuable evidence that enables governments, businesses, the community and our citizens to be better informed and aware.

National Statistical Organisations produce information that informs decision making – from governments through to businesses and households, families and individuals. I cannot think of any key decision that does not draw upon, at least to some extent, essential statistics.

To give you a sense of scale, the ABS in Australia produces around 500 statistical releases every year —around 2 major statistical products every working day— and then we also do a Census of Population and Housing, as well as a Census of Agriculture every five years.

Our statistics help inform our democratic processes, they influence economic policy settings by governments, they affect government funding to Australia’s states and regions, as well as electoral distributions, and influence business decisions and household choices.

They shine a light on our society and environment, and show how it is changing. Just last week the ABS released the second tranche of information from the 2016 Census of Population and Housing which covered changes to our labour force and employment landscape, internal migration, education and much more.

Our statistics are truly priceless.

Since I became Australian Statistician I have seen first-hand the commitment of the ABS to delivering the quality, relevant, timely statistics that Australia needs. I have seen how important it is to value and trust our official statistics, and continue to invest in them.

The main strategic focus of the ABS leadership is to maximise public value from the resources we, and other governments, receive.

However, we face many challenges…

All national statistical offices are expected to measure an economy, society and environment that are becoming more complex, and more complex to measure. Key data users are demanding new statistical products as well as continuation of most of the existing ones. It is becoming more difficult to get information from households and businesses through traditional survey approaches, but new information sources such as big data are emerging. New statistical techniques are also being developed in Australia and internationally to respond to analytical challenges.

To meet these changing information needs and measurement challenges, national statistical offices like the ABS need to innovate and transform the ways we produce our statistics. This will enable us to address current and future complex policy questions.

We are also giving attention to enabling our statistics to be used effectively, so the community derives maximum value from the statistics we produce. Our statistics are a public resource that taxpayers have funded.

We are also cognisant of the imposition we make of households and businesses to respond to our surveys – often referred to as respondent burden – and desirably want to improve the service experience of those whom we ask and expect to provide us with accurate and often personal, sensitive information. And if we have better, less intrusive ways to collect the information we need to deliver quality statistics, we should adopt new approaches.

At the same time, all National Statistical Organisations are modernising how they work as well as what they do. The Information Age in which we are operating is providing new opportunities and a number of challenges for all of us. We are also complex organisations that need to be well managed now, but also with a view to building capability for the future.

All in all, a challenge to keep delivering relevant, timely quality statistics both now and into the future.

Disability policy developments over the past century

Disability statistics play a pivotal role in all areas of policy-making and in each and every stage from development and implementation, to monitoring and assessment of effectiveness of policies and programs, to the analysis of cost-effectiveness.

There has been an increasing focus on disability for successive Australian Governments, as seen through substantial changes in disability policy.

I would like to outline some of the milestones in the recognition of persons with disability in Australia. This is important context for understanding the development of disability-related statistics.

Up until the late 1970s, the views of persons with disability were mainly represented through the voices of disability service providers, professionals working in the area of disability and family members.

However, 1981 was a turning point in the history of the Australian and international disability rights movements. In the context of the International Year of Disabled Persons, people with disability highlighted the social nature of their condition and became united in claiming self-determination and self-representation. In 1986, in Australia, disability rights advocacy was recognised as a programme area to be funded under the new Disability Services Act 1986.

In 2008, the Australian Government adopted and ratified the United Nations Convention for the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. The convention acknowledges the need for disability related data. It recognises that the circumstances of people with disability cannot be improved if we do not understand the barriers they are facing.

Australia is internationally recognised as a leading supporter of disability-inclusive development. The Australian Government’s aid program in support of people with disabilities in developing countries is shaped by a key strategy document: ‘Development for All 2015-2020: Strategy for strengthening disability-inclusive development in Australia’s aid program ’. The strategy builds on the strong foundation of the first Development for All strategy, launched in 2008, which highlighted the importance of recognising and supporting the inherent dignity and human rights of people with disabilities in line with the United Nations Convention for the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. It identifies key opportunities where disability-inclusive development can be strengthened based on the investment priorities of the aid program.

Moving forward, more locally, the Australian Government’s National Disability Insurance Scheme is a new initiative that provides support for Australians with disability, their families and carers. The scheme, currently relatively early in its implementation phase, provides targeted support and better coordination and access to services for people with disability. The NDIS has a focus on more personalised support to meet the specific needs of people with a disability.

Clearly, robust, timely and accurate statistics are necessary to understand the impact this policy change is having on people with disability in Australia, and to help assess the performance of such a major policy and program shift.

Disability data collection in Australia

Just as disability policy has been progressing over many years, there has also been a long journey with disability-related data collection in Australia.

Disability information was first collected as a topic in the ABS Monthly Population Survey of 1967 and twice more in the same survey in the 1970s. Over the years since then, the ABS has developed three major disability data collection vehicles, each conceptually related to the other but distinct in purpose and output.

The most detailed and comprehensive source of disability data is the Survey of Disability, Ageing and Carers which has been conducted eight times since 1981. The most recent survey was run in 2015. And we are currently finalising plans for another survey in 2018.

In the early 1990s, a Disability Module was designed for use in household surveys to identify the population with disability within any of the social surveys in which the module has been included. For example, the inclusion of the Disability Module in the 2012 Personal Safety Survey allows for analysis of the nature and extent of violence experienced by men and women with disability compared to those without disability. The use of the module has enabled us to investigate disability in relation to social and economic circumstance.

In response to the need for small area data which would allow the ability to examine the characteristics of small populations, a measure of disability was developed for use in the 2006 Census of Population and Housing. Four questions were asked in the Census to identify people who had need for assistance with one of the core activity areas of self-care, communication or mobility because of a disability, long term health condition or the effects of old age. As a result, the 2006 Census produced the first Census output of information on people with a 'Need for assistance' and the questions were subsequently used in Census 2011 and 2016.

More recently, the ABS included the Washington Group Short Set of Questions in the 2016 Supplementary Disability Survey. This important survey was conducted in partnership with the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and demonstrates the ABS’ commitment to working towards an internationally comparable disability measure. ABS presented some initial findings of the analysis of this work at last year’s Washington Group meeting in Pretoria and will present more detailed findings tomorrow.

Role and importance of the Washington Group

This brings me to the Washington Group on Disability Statistics. As many of you know, in June 2001, the Washington Group on Disability Statistics was formed following the United Nations International Seminar on Measurement of Disability, where the need for international comparable statistics on disability was recognised.

The Washington Group now has a membership of more than 135 countries, several international organisations and Disabled People’s Organisations.

The Washington Group has been developing and testing several tools to be used for the collection of internationally comparable disability statistics including the short set of six questions on functioning designed primarily for Censuses, and as a means to disaggregate the sustainable development goals. To date, more than 60 countries have used these questions in censuses or surveys. The Washington Group has gone on to develop the extended set of questions on functioning for surveys to capture more extensive information on disability, and a survey module on child functioning developed in collaboration with the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund.

I’m pleased that statistical and methodological work around the collection of disability statistics at the international level has continued, and the comparison of data on disability cross-nationally continues to be facilitated.

Desired outcomes from the meeting

Building on these key achievements to date, there is still more for us to do.

This 17th meeting of the Washington Group on Disability Statistics provides us with a valuable opportunity to discuss the collection of disability data using the Washington Group tools and share our experiences, learning and challenges. The agenda for the meeting provides an excellent framework for all participants to consider what development is needed to the Washington Group tools and resources, to support best practice in disability data collection across the world.

The forum brings together experts in disability data collection, who I encourage to meaningfully participate in a robust discussion that will help shape our nations’ futures, and ensure that we move from anecdotes to quality data that shapes good policy design and provides for well-informed decisions.

I look forward to seeing tangible results from this meeting that add value and build our capacity as NSOs domestically, and internationally, in the collection and dissemination of essential disability statistics.


It is an exciting but demanding time for the world’s statistical agencies to collect quality, comparable disability statistics to provide governments, businesses and the community the information that is required. This is essential so that key decision makers can make the best possible decisions to help improve the lives of those with disability.

I would like to challenge all of you, individually and collectively, to contribute to the discussions and progress we can make. This will improve disability statistics, their collection and use across the world

However, this is not just an analytical exercise. I would suggest that the main focus of these statistics is to shine a light on the contemporary experiences for people with a disability, their aspirations and needs, and provide evidence for how they can contribute to and engage with our communities. This is the higher purpose of why we have come together in Sydney for this meeting, recognising the ultimate uses and usefulness of disability statistics for people with disability and our community as a whole.

Thank you.

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