How many people live with disability in Australia?

In Australia, the two main survey instruments have been the ABS Census and the Survey of Disability, Ageing and Carers (SDAC). The ABS also does a range of other surveys on specific aspects of disability, health, caring and ageing.

According to the 2015 SDAC there were 4.3 million Australians with a disability (18.3%). Just over half of Australians over the age of 65 reported having a disability. States or Territories with older populations recorded higher prevalence of disability. Some 5.8% of Australians had a profound or severe disability – that is, they always required assistance with core activities, in the case of the former, or, in the latter, they sometimes needed help, had difficulty being understood by friends or family, and could more easily communicate using sign-language or other non-spoken language. Of the 1.4 million people with profound or severe core activity limitations, almost half were aged 65 or older.[1]

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders experienced disability at almost twice the rate of non-Indigenous people.[2] In the 2006 Census numbers ranged from 19 600 Indigenous people with disability to 26 000 in the 2013 National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Survey (NATSISS ).[3] However, these numbers are difficult to read because of the different cultural conceptions of disability amongst Indigenous groups.

Catholics living with disability

Using Census data, the Catholic Church Pastoral Research Office has compiled data on Catholics living with disability and those caring for them. Based on the 2011 Census the total national Catholic population was approximately five and half million, or about 25% of the total Australian population.[4] Of that total there were 267 715 Catholics who identified as needing assistance for core activities. About a quarter were aged 75-84, and just over half (54%) were aged 85 or over. Nationally, more than half a million Catholics (9%) provided unpaid assistance to people living with disability, with the highest numbers in the 45-64 age bracket.[5]

In the Sydney Archdiocese, the Catholic population in 2011 was 611 431 and of that number 5.2% needed assistance with core activities and 11.5% of people aged over 15 years provided unpaid assistance to a person with disability. There were substantially more Catholic women needing core assistance at 18 391 compared to 13 272 Catholic men.[6]

What is it like living with disability?

There is no one experience of living with a disability – diversity is the unifying feature. Like all people, quality of life for Australians living with disability depends on many factors – family background, race, sex, age, location, education, language and cultural background, financial situation, talents and skills and so forth. The nature of the disability a person lives with will also affect some elements of their life experiences. Overall though, people with disability are at greater risk than the general population of experiencing persistent disadvantage across a range of common wellbeing markers.[7] If a person with a disability also happens to belong to another ‘vulnerable group’ such as being Indigenous, long-term unemployed, female, a public housing resident, elderly, a child, or a lone parent the disadvantage will be compounded.[8]

Shut Out, a landmark 2009 report by the National People with Disabilities and Carer Council showed the depth of the disadvantage and exclusion for many people with disabilities. The most common barrier people with disabilities and their families identified in the report was social exclusion and community participation.[9] A 2013 Productivity Commission inquiry into disadvantage in Australia concurred with this, finding that over 80% of those who were deeply and persistently socially excluded have a long-term health condition or disability.[10]

Violence and Abuse

A4 Combo

These are the kinds of stories shared during a 2015 national Senate Inquiry into the ‘violence, abuse and neglect against people with disability in institutional and residential settings’. It uncovered systemic abuse and neglect at rates ‘far higher’ than the general population.[11] The Inquiry noted the extreme dearth of data on incidents of violence, abuse and neglect and on how the reports were followed up criminally or otherwise. In the case of criminal incidents the Inquiry noted that people with disability were poorly treated, unfairly represented and generally discriminated against and too often locked out of the justice system in Australia. [12]

Discrimination and social exclusion

More than half of the submissions to the 2009 report Shut Out prepared by National People with Disabilities and Carer Council identified exclusion and negative social attitudes as major issues in their lives. They reported daily exclusion, segregation and Less than quotemarginalisation. At best, people said they were treated ‘differently’, as opposed to being treated negatively and with prejudice. Being denied quality and equal relationships and community participation means people become socially isolate. [13]

For Australians living with a disability aged between 15 and 65 almost 8.6% or 281 100  reported that they had experienced discrimination because of disability. Young people (15-24) were far more likely to report discrimination at 20.5% compared to the 2.1% of those aged over 65. Employers were the main sources of discrimination at approximately 46% for unemployed and employed people alike.[14]

Work, Income and Education

In 2010-11 Australia ranked 21st out of 29 OECD countries in employment rates for people with disability.[15] The rate of employment (just over 50%) for those aged 15-64 remained steady between 2012-15;  it is a figure that has changed little in the last twenty years.[16] The unemployment rate for people with disability has held at about 10% in the period 2012-15. In 2015 the rate of unemployment for those without disability was almost half that at 5.3%. Full time employment rates were also almost twice as high, at 53.8% for those without disability compared to 27% for Australians with disability.[17] The Australian Human Rights Commission found that many people with disability want to work and are capable of doing so in a whole range of ways, but are often denied the opportunity.[18]

People with a history of mental illness or intellectual disability were especially stigmatised. Aside from the costly effects the lack of employment has on wellbeing and economic prosperity, many people with disabilities and their families said they lived in ‘fear and desperation’ because they were despised by the community for living on the pension but faced huge barriers to get the support and employment they needed to get off it.[19]

Compounding the costs of unemployment are the often very high costs of living for people with disability and their families. This is because people often need increased healthcare, modifications to homes and cars, more expensive types of transport and insurance, and often also expensive health aids. ThUntitledis stretches already very tiny budgets for those on disability support payments. [20]

Employment opportunities have been further limited because of the often poor-access to quality education for people with disability. Many Australians with disability and their families noted that the system had largely failed their children. Chronic underfunding, lack of expertise and negative attitudes all contributed to a poor education for children and young people with disabilities. [21]


As Australia is a signatory to the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities having access to adequate housing and the right to choose that housing and with whom it is shared are all rights enshrined in Australia.[22] However, the lived reality has been far from this. The type of housing people with disability live in and can access varies enormously based on family background, age, employment, location and type of disability. Nonetheless, people with disability are over-represented in housing assistance programmes and have significantly lower levels of home ownership than the general population. This is particularly the case for those who live with profound or severe disability.[23]

Similarly, the specific cultural and geographic needs of Indigenous Australians with disability have made accessing adequate housing and being able to exercise choice especially difficult for this group; a group which generally is already over-represented in homelessness populations nationally. New research is providing much needed data and insight into this issue.[24]

Overall, there is a severe shortage of accommodation options and support for private housing options for people with disabilities across Australia. There is usually very limited choice or freedom for people to choose where they live. The lack of choice and support means many people are made increasingly vulnerable, and become victimised and abused in residential settings with little to no power to change their situation.[25]

Living with a profound or severe disability

Globally, people with a severe or profound disability and their families tend to experience greater disadvantage.[26] In 2011 Australians with a severe disability and their families met only sub-standard outcomes on every indicator of community participation and wellbeing. Only half progress past year 10 at school compared with 80% for the general population. As low as one-tenth (in comparison to the general population) have opportunities to participate in social life outside the home.

Primary carers tend to be in the poorest two-fifths of all households and 55% rely on income support as their main form of income. In the 2012 a third of people who identified as having a profound or severe core activity limitation reported gross personal incomes of less than $320 per week, while another third reported $321-$580 weekly income.[27] Carers have the lowest level of wellbeing of any community group studied. In some cases the only way for people to get the help they need is for carers (usually parents) to relinquish the care of their adult children so that care can be obtained before the carer dies.[28] This is a particularly shocking problem and a significant one given that over 51 000 people with this type of disability and aged 25-64 were living with their parents in 2012.[29]