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The prevalence and impact of disability in the UK: An overview of the research to the end of 2021

The prevalence and impact of disability in the UK: An overview of the research to the end of 2021 Sarah Eberhardt, July 2022 Executive Summary

Part I: Understanding levels of disability in the UK

1. Methodology

This report draws together the most up to date statistics and research about disability in the UK. Part I focuses on levels of disability, looking where possible at estimates of the prevalence of individual disabilities which take into account epidemiological research, overall population predictions and official data. Part II then considers research into what it is like for disabled people living in the UK today, considering factors from housing and education to technology and the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic. The nature of the research being discussed, and the complex nature of the subject, means that research findings may be of varying levels of accuracy. When comparing different statistics, it is important to bear in mind differences in the research. For instance, how is disability defined? What is being measured? (Prevalence? Incidence?) Who is, and isn’t, included in the sample? (Only people living at home, or also those in care homes, prisons, university halls or on the street? Only those who use particular services?) Moreover, respondents may interpret questions differently, and people with the same disability may view their disability differently. For instance, a 2013 ONS survey found that 62% of people identified as being disabled do not think of themselves as disabled. As well as making us somewhat cautious of the accuracy of self-report-based surveys, this raises interesting questions for marketing a service or product to disabled people. In addition to research seeking to enable generalisations about the population as a whole, it is important to also consider the value of qualitative in-depth research or self-selective surveys as a means of giving voice to particular opinions and viewpoints.

2. The disabled population as a whole

Just over one in five people (22% of the UK population, or 14.1 million people) reported a disability in 2019/20. In the decade from 2009/10 to 2019/20, there has been an increase of 3 percentage points (up from 19% or 11.4 million people in 2009/10). Over this period, the percentage of working- age adults reporting a disability has increased from 15% to 19%, and children from 6% to 8%. The percentage of people of State Pension age reporting a disability has remained more consistently around 44% to 46% throughout. Overall females are more likely than males to be disabled, except among children as boys are slightly more likely to be disabled than girls. The prevalence of people reporting a disability was highest in Wales (27%), North East England (27%) and Scotland (25%), compared to the national average of 22%. London had the lowest proportion of people who reported a disability (14%), followed by the South East (19%). These differences can be at least partially explained by varying demographics in each region, as for instance reporting of a disability is more than double amongst those of State Pension age compared to the overall population. There is also evidence that disabled people tend to be concentrated in poorer areas as a result of lower incomes and social housing allocations policy.

3. Comparing different types of disabilities

This section presents a number of estimates of the prevalence of different disabilities and conditions within the UK population, as well as the proportion of the disabled population affected by different impairments. For instance, in 2019 to 2020 the FRS found that a mobility impairment was reported by an estimated 7 million people, or 49% of disabled people. Over the last three years, mental health is the only category of impairment to have increased, from 25% of disabled people selecting it in 2017/18 (approximately 3.4m) to 29% in 2019/20 (4.1m). More specific disabilities affect a smaller proportion of the population – for example, individual studies estimate that approximately 2.2% of people in the UK have learning disabilities, 1.8% use a wheelchair, 1% have autism and 0.6% are deafblind. To better understand the proportion of people with individual disabilities and conditions, as well as young carers, the following four sections consist of short descriptions of each of the following conditions, including symptoms, prognosis and prevalence figures.

4. Physical impairments 4.1. Cystic fibrosis 4.2. Cerebral palsy 4.3. Spinal cord injury 4.4. Epilepsy 4.5. Brain injury 4.6. Multiple sclerosis 4.7. Motor neurone disease

4.8. Spina Bifida 4.9. Muscular dystrophy

4.10. Diabetes

4.11. ME

  1. Sensory impairments 5.1. Visual impairments 5.2. Hearing impairments 5.3. Deaf blind

  2. Learning disability and mental health 6.1. Learning disability 6.2. Profound and Multiple Learning Disability (PMLD) 6.3. Autism 6.4. Asperger syndrome 6.5. Down’s Syndrome 6.6. Mental health 6.7. ADHD 6.8. PTSD

  3. Young carers


Part II: The lives of disabled people

8. Restrictions on participating in different areas of life

There is wide recognition that disabled people face numerous barriers and inequalities in many areas of life. Widely adopted by disability charities and organisations, the social model of disability identifies barriers that are created by our society, and may be physical, organisational or attitudinal. Research findings show the differences in experience between those with and without impairments when it comes to facing restrictions to participation in different areas of life, as well as the variation between types of impairment.

9. Well-being and health

Disabled people are consistently more likely to measure lower than non-disabled people on four standard well-being measures, related to happiness, feeling that the things done in life are worthwhile, life satisfaction and anxiety. Strikingly, in 2018/19, 21% of disabled people aged 25-34 said they felt ‘often or always’ lonely, which is seven times higher than non- disabled people this age (3%), and three times higher than disabled people aged 65 plus (7%). In February 2021, almost two-thirds of disabled people reported that Covid-19 affected their well-being compared with half of non-disabled people. Disabled people were also significantly more likely than non-disabled people to say that coronavirus had affected their health (35% for disabled people, compared with 12% for non-disabled people) and access to healthcare for non-coronavirus related issues (40% compared with 19%). In general, research suggests that people with disabilities reported worse access to healthcare than those without disabilities, with transportation, cost and long waiting lists being the main barriers.

10. Education and employment


Pupils with special educational needs (SEN) are currently classified as follows:

  • 12% of all pupils receive SEN support. From 2015, the School Action and School Action Plus categories were combined to form one category of SEN support, meaning that extra or different help is given from that provided as part of the school’s usual curriculum.

  • 3.7% of all pupils have an Education, Health and Care (EHC) Plan and statement of SEN. A pupil has an EHC plan (introduced in 2014) when a formal assessment has been made and a document then sets out the child’s need and the extra help they should receive. The greatest disparities between disabled and non-disabled people’s educational outcomes were in those attaining degree-level qualifications as their highest qualification (23% of disabled people compared to 40% of non-disabled people) and those achieving no qualifications (15% compared to 5% respectively). From 2013 to the start of the pandemic, the number and rate of disabled people in employment was increasing whilst the ‘disability employment gap’ (the gap between the rate of disabled and non-disabled people in employment) was declining. The pandemic initially reversed these trends, however there are now signs that rates are returning to pre- pandemic levels. Nevertheless, the most recent figures (for Q2 2021) show a gap of 28 percentage points, as 53% of disabled people were employed compared to 81% of non- disabled people. The disability employment gap is wider for disabled men, older disabled people, those with no qualifications and of white ethnicity. Disabled people are less likely than non-disabled people to be in work at all qualification levels. A disabled person whose highest qualification is at A level is as likely to be in employment as a non-disabled person with no qualifications, and a disabled person with a degree is only slightly more likely to have a job than a non-disabled person who left school at 16 with GCSEs.


11. Economic factors

Families with a disabled person are disproportionately affected by poverty. Around 31% of people with disabilities in the UK lived in poverty in 2017/18, compared to around 20% of the non-disabled population. This gap in poverty rates has persisted over time. The risk of poverty for those with disability in the family has increased since 2015/16, in part due to significant changes to the benefit system. Nearly half of all people in poverty live in a household where someone is disabled, compared with just a third of people in households not in poverty. Of the nearly 4.5 million informal adult carers in the UK almost a quarter are living in poverty. Research from Scope suggests that, on average, disabled people face extra costs of £583 per month to sustain the same quality of life as a non-disabled person (even after disability benefits designed to meet those extra costs have been received). The pandemic has only made financial pressures worse, with rising costs, reduced incomes and greater barriers to access for disabled people and carers.1

Personal Independence Payment (PIP) is a welfare benefit introduced in 2013 to replace Disability Living Allowance (DLA) for adults aged over 16. The latest available figures show that there were 2.7 million people claiming PIP and 1.4 million claiming DLA in February 2021. However, there has been considerable concern and criticism surrounding the introduction of PIP, its criteria and the assessment process. Scope reports that between 2017 and 2019 the Government spent more than £120 million fighting appeals to benefit decisions.

12. Living conditions

For many disabled people the experience of lockdowns during the Covid-19 pandemic has been made even more difficult due to the inaccessibility of their homes. In 2018/19, only 9% of homes offered the four main accessibility features to be considered even ‘visitable’. The EHRC has reported that a chronic shortage of suitable housing, unnecessary bureaucracy and insufficient support are restricting disabled people’s ability to live independently. Scope’s research as part of its Travel Fair campaign found that two thirds of disabled people reported having experienced problems using public transport in the last year and 30% said that difficulties with public transport have reduced their independence. Although finding lower levels of dissatisfaction with public transport compared to Scope’s survey, the most recent National Travel Survey in 2020 also found that disabled people are more likely to find using public transport difficult than non-disabled people. 54% of non-disabled respondents said it is very easy to use public transport in their area, compared with 37% of disabled respondents.

Technology and digital skills are increasingly important for connecting with others, accessing services and information, and for functioning in the workplace. Digital exclusion is defined by the ONS as not having used the internet in the past three months. In 2020, 19% of disabled adults were ‘digitally excluded’, compared to 8% of all adults. To participate in a digital world requires not just internet access, but also sufficient digital skills. It is estimated that 89% of adults in the UK without an impairment can do seven foundation tasks judged necessary for digital participation, compared to 67% of people with an impairment. 38% of people with an impairment have the digital skills needed for work, compared to the UK average of 52%. Other factors also have an impact on disabled people’s ability to be digitally connected. For instance, a study found that only 2% of the world’s most popular websites meet the legal minimum requirements for accessibility.

13. Free time and leisure

Evidence suggests that people with a disability take part in fewer leisure activities than people without a disability, and are more likely to say they have little choice over their free time compared with non-disabled adults. Various physical, organisational and attitudinal barriers to disabled people’s participation in many leisure activities have been identified by the research, such as inaccessible venues and facilities, lack of staff awareness and understanding, lack of inclusive activities or necessary support, financial constraints, mobility and transport difficulties, and negative attitudes towards disability. In 2019-20, 66% of adults without a disability met NHS guidelines that adults are active for 150 minutes a week, compared to 45% of disabled people or those with a long-term health condition, or just 36% of adults with three or more impairments. The number of active disabled people fell during the pandemic, particularly when restrictions were strongest

during the initial lockdown. Twice as many disabled people felt that coronavirus greatly reduced their ability to do sport or physical activity compared to non-disabled people (27% vs 13%). Disabled children are less active than non-disabled children, and as they get older the gap in activity increases. At school, disabled children are less likely to take part, and less likely to enjoy being active. 40% of disabled children viewed their impairment as the top barrier to being active. Volunteering can help disabled people not just gain skills for employment but also help address social exclusion and inequalities. Research from before the pandemic showed that similar proportions of disabled people participated in either formal or informal volunteering in the past 12 months as non-disabled people. However, the pattern by age differed, with disabled people aged 16-24 being much more likely to volunteer than their non-disabled peers, and older disabled people (50+) being less likely to volunteer than their non-disabled peers. Disabled adults were also more likely to be involved in civic participation than non- disabled adults (42% and 35% respectively).


This is a summary of a much longer report into the prevalence and impact of disability in the UK. There is also a powerpoint presentation. All free to download.

About Hey Hey Joe Heyheyjoe.info is a website full of free information, ideas and information for people who run and love charities and non-profits, set up by Joe Saxton There are blogs, vlogs, presentations, reports and the opportunity to pick Joe Saxton’s brains in an online session. All this and more at www.heyheyjoe.info joe.saxton@btinternet.com 07976 329212

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