Disability Statistics: What’s in a Number?

So, now you’re an expert on what types of disabilities there are, right? (see Types of Disabilities, Part 1 and Types of Disabilities, Part 2, if you need a refresher) With a widened perspective, it’s conceivable that 10-20% of the world’s population has one (or more) of those disabilities. That’s 700 million to 1.4 billion people who have either a visual, auditory, cognitive, mobility, seizure, or psychological disability. Or a combination of 2 or more of these things! Some of these disabilities are more visible than others. Regardless of what we do or don’t see, this is a general statistic that may not even count everyone because chose not to disclose their disability. Regardless of reported and actual numbers, the reported percentages are still quite significant.

Why a range between 10-20%, anyway? That’s a great question! Disability statistics are complicated, to put it mildly. Some reasons why:

  • Survey methodologies across countries vary. What and how questions are asked can illicit a different response from person to person. Data collection may be based off of self-reporting information or collector observations. The intent of the survey may prevent or encourage people to identify as disabled. So many variables!
  • The definition of “disability” can be very broad or very narrow, depending on the culture of the surveying country;
  • Political bias. This can even be as extreme as denying that there aren’t any people who are disabled in their country. It depends on how a country wants to be viewed;
  • Imbalance in population that may have a higher number of elders, impoverished, or war-affected people.

That last bullet point brings up another question: why would a higher population of elders, impoverished, or war-affected people matter when gathering statistics on disabilities? Another great question! Here’s why:

  • 30-60% of people acquire a disability, due to age, which could affect one or more of the following: sight, hearing, mobility, or cognition;
  • In countries with a life expectancy 70+ years, individuals spend about 8 years (11.5% of their life) living with a disability, due to aging;
  • Approximately 50% of 85+ year old folks have a disability, ambulatory disabilities being the most common for 65+ year old folks;
  • People with disabilities are less likely to complete their education:
    • because they can’t traverse the traditional school system and standards,
    • because the education system is ill-equipped to accommodate them, or
    • other barriers affect the quality and availability of education;
    • In the U.S. about 19% of people with a disability (ages 21-64) were reported to have less than a high school education in 2017.
  • Less education means fewer job opportunities:
    • In the U.S., people with disabilities are 2x as likely to live in poverty;
    • In the U.S., ~30% of people with disabilities live below the poverty line, and people with disabilities living in a third world country face a more bleak situation;
  • People with disabilities are often among the poorest of the poor, especially in poorer countries, and that can affect their family for generations;
  • Deficiencies in health care, sanitation, and safety increase the number of people with disabilities; and
  • Some people who have been in a war zone acquired a disability. Approximately 27% of non-institutionalized civilian veterans (21-64 years) were reported to have a VA service-connected disability in 2017.

In short, a higher population of any of these aforementioned groups within a surveyed country could affect the reported percentage of disabled people that live there.

So, what’s in a number anyhow? Empathy? Hope? Despair? Harsh reality? Are people with disabilities just a statistic? Do statistics make problems quantifiable and relatable? If so, do the numbers move you to action? Or do they just feel like percentages that have no real meaning? And yet it’s a fact that people with disabilities are people, not a condition (type) or number (statistic). We need to get serious about treating them more like people.

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