Disability in Australia
Four million people in Australia (18.5%) reported having a disability in 2009, according to the results of the Survey of Disability, Ageing and Carers.[note 1] Males and females were similarly affected by disability (18% and 19% respectively).
Just under one in five Australians (18.5%) reported disability in 2009. A further 21% had a long-term health condition that did not restrict their everyday activities. The remaining 60% of the Australian population had neither a disability nor a long term health condition. Of those with a reported disability, 87% had a specific limitation or restriction; that is, an impairment restricting their ability to perform communication, mobility or self-care activities, or a restriction associated with schooling or employment.
The disability rate increases steadily with age, with younger people less likely to report a disability than older people. Of those aged four years and under, 3.4% were affected by disability, compared with 40% of those aged between 65 and 69 and 88% of those aged 90 years and over.
Rates of disability and rates of profound or severe core-activity limitation for 5- to 14-year-old males (11% and 6.6% respectively) were close to double those for females in the same age group (6.1% and 3.0% respectively). In contrast, women aged 90 years and over had a higher rate of profound or severe core-activity limitations (75%) than men of the same age (58%).
The prevalence of disability in Australia fell from 20% in 2003 to 18.5% in 2009. After removing the effects of different age structures the age standardised rate also fell by 2.1 percentage points. The decrease is particularly noticeable in the younger age groups. From 2003 to 2009, the disability rate for 15 to 24 year olds fell from 9.0% to 6.6%. Over the same period the rate of disability also decreased for those aged between 25 and 34 from 11% to 8.6%. Similarly, 22% of 45 to 54 year olds reported a disability in 2003, compared with 18% in 2009.
The rate of profound or severe limitation in the core activities of communication, mobility and self-care declined, from 6.3% in 2003 to 5.8% in 2009. Much of the decrease in the prevalence of disability between 2003 and 2009 is due to a decline in the proportion of Australians disabled by physical health conditions, such as asthma and heart disease.
The incidence of disability caused by physical conditions, as opposed to mental or behavioural disorders, dropped from 17% in 2003, to 15% in 2009. For instance, in 2003, 6.8% of Australians had a disability primarily caused by musculoskeletal disorders such as arthritis and back problems, with this proportion declining to 6.5% in 2009. Likewise, the incidence of disability caused by diseases of the circulatory system dropped from 1.8% to 1.4%. In 2003, 8.8% of people aged in the 65 years and older group reported a disability due to diseases of the circulatory system, compared with 7.4% in 2009.
The incidence of disability caused by asthma also declined, from 0.8% in 2003 to 0.5% in 2009. Amongst younger people (0 to 17 years), the incidence of disability caused by asthma almost halved between 2003 and 2009, from 0.9% in 2003 to 0.5% in 2009. Of those aged between 18 and 44 years, the incidence of asthma-related disability also decreased, from 0.5% in 2003 to 0.3%. In addition, for this age group, the proportion of people with a disability due to back problems reduced, from 2.6% in 2003 to 1.9% in 2009.
The incidence of disability due to back problems also declined amongst those aged between 45 and 64 years. In this age group, 5.2% of people reported a disability as a result of back problems in 2009, compared with 6.0% in 2003. By contrast, the prevalence of disability resultant from back problems amongst those aged 65 and over has increased since 2003, from 4.9% to 6.3%.
The Disability Discrimination Act 1992 (DDA) was an act passed by the Parliament of Australia in 1992 to promote the rights of people with disabilities in certain areas such as housing, education and provision of goods and services. It shares a common philosophy with other disability discrimination acts around the world that have emerged in the late 20th and early 21st century, as well as earlier civil rights legislation designed to prevent racial discrimination and sex discrimination.
At the time of the enactment of the DDA, a variety of anti-discrimination acts for people with disabilities already existed in the different state legislatures, some dating back to the early 1980s. All States and Territories except Tasmania and the Northern Territory had anti-discrimination laws in place, and these two places had legislation under consideration. There were three reasons given for enacting a federal law:
- To standardise the scope of rights offered around the country
- To implement the Australian Government’s obligations as a signatory to international declarations on the rights of people with disabilities.
- To enable regulation of discriminatory practices of Commonwealth authorities.
Complaints made under the DDA are made to the Australian Human Rights Commission (previously known as the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission, HREOC), which also handles complaints relating to the Racial Discrimination Act 1975, Sex Discrimination Act 1984, Age Discrimination Act 2004 and the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission Act 1986.
A Productivity Commission enquiry was initiated by the Australian government to evaluate the effectiveness of the act, and published its findings in 2004. The Commission found that while there is still room for improvement, particularly in reducing discrimination in employment, overall the DDA has been reasonably effective. Specifically, the Commission found that people with a disability were less likely to finish school, to have a TAFE or university qualification and to be employed. They are more likely to have a below average income, be on a pension, live in public housing and in prison. The average personal income for people with a disability is 44 per cent of the income of other Australians.
DisabilityCare Australia, formerly known as the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS), is a healthcare program initiated by the Australian government. The bill was introduced into parliament in November 2012. In July 2013 the first stage of DisabilityCare Australia commenced in South Australia, Tasmania, the Hunter Region in New South Wales and the Barwon area of Victoria, while the Australian Capital Territory will commence in July 2014.
In 2009, there were 2.6 million carers who provided assistance to those who needed help because of disability or old age. Just under one third of these (29%) were primary carers; that is, people who provided the majority of the informal help needed by a person with a disability or aged 60 years and over. Over two-thirds of primary carers (68%) were women. Thirteen percent of women were involved in a caring role, compared with 11% of men. The gender difference among carers was most pronounced for those aged 45 to 54 years, 16% of men and 23% of women in this age group provided care for a person with a disability or aged 60 years and over.
The proportion of Australians involved in caring for a person with a disability or an older person declined from 13% in 2003 to 12% in 2009, in line with the decrease in disability prevalence. 
In Australia in 2009, over one million working-age people with disability (50%) were in paid employment, comprising 10% of the total Australian workforce. Men with disability (55%) were more likely to be employed than women with disability (45%). Although there have been improvements in anti-discrimination legislation, people with disability are still less likely to be working than other Australians. The labour force participation rate for those aged 15–64 years with disability in 2009 was 54%, much lower than that for those without disability (83%). One of the priority outcomes of the National Disability Strategy 2010–2020 is to "increase access to employment opportunities as a key to improving economic security and personal wellbeing for people with disability..."
The disability rate for Australians aged 15–64 years, those of ‘prime working age’, rose from 15% in 1993 to a peak of 17% in 2003, then returned to 15% in 2009.
Over the sixteen years from 1993 to 2009, the unemployment rate for 15–64-year-olds with disability decreased from 17.8% to 7.8%, in line with the similar decline in unemployment for those with no disability (from 12.0% in 1993 to 5.1% in 2009). However, the unemployment rate for people with disability continued to be significantly higher than for those without disability in 2009.
Of those people with disability who were not in the labour force, one fifth (20% or 194,000) had no employment restriction, meaning that it was not their disability which prevented them from working. Difficulties such as access to childcare (22%), were reported as limiting these people's ability to participate in the labour force despite having no employment restrictions. For people without disability who were not in the labour force, other difficulties were reported such as a lack of vacancies or suitable hours (both 11%).
The type of disability that an individual has can affect their likelihood of participating in the labour market. People with sensory or speech impairment had the best labour market outcomes with a participation rate of 54% and an unemployment rate of 7.0%, while people whose disability was psychological had the lowest participation rate (29%), and the highest unemployment rate (19%). People with sensory or speech impairment may be able to benefit from assistive technologies but this is not the case for people with psychological disability such as mental illness. People with mental illness may experience disruption to their work attendance and career due to the episodic nature of their disability.
As with disability type, the severity of a person’s disability is reflected in their ability to participate in the labour force. Generally, labour force participation decreases as the severity of disability increases. In 2009, those aged 15–64 years with moderate or mild disability had a participation rate of 53%, while those with profound or severe disability had a labour force participation rate of 31%. This pattern was evident across all types of disability. For example, the participation rate of those with moderate or mild physical restriction was 51%, while those with profound or severe physical restriction had a participation rate of 28%. To see a pattern in unemployment rates, severity and type of disability need to be looked at together. For example, the unemployment rate for people with intellectual disability was high in comparison with other disability groups, regardless of severity. Those with moderate or mild intellectual disability (20%) had a higher unemployment rate than those with moderate or mild physical disability (8.8%). This may partly reflect the unique barriers that people with intellectual disability face in accessing education and work.
Some people with disability experience employment restrictions such as being restricted in the type of job they can do or the number of hours they can work, or needing special assistance in the workplace. People with disability who had an employment restriction were far less likely to be participating in the labour force (46%) than those without an employment restriction (71%). Of the 69% of people with disability who had an employment restriction, two of the most common restrictions were the type of job or the number of hours they could work (51% and 31% respectively). People with profound or severe disability were the most likely to have some kind of employment restriction (92%).
Generally, people with disability who were employed were more likely than people without disability to work part time (38% and 31% respectively). The number of hours usually worked by people with disability was associated with the severity and type of disability they had. People with profound or severe disability who worked were more likely to work part time hours than those with less severe disability. Nevertheless, almost half (49%) of those with profound or severe disability who were working, worked full time. Among the five disability groups, psychological and intellectual disabilities have greater association with fewer working hours. More than a third (35%) of people with psychological disability who worked, usually worked no more than 15 hours, followed by people with intellectual disability (30%). In contrast, about two thirds of employed people with sensory or speech disability (66%) or physical disability (61%) worked full time.
Almost one fifth (19%) of working-age people with disability who were employed in 2009 worked as professionals, followed by clerical and administrative workers, and technicians and trade workers (both 15%). The distribution of people across different occupations is similar for people with and without disability. However, there was some variation of occupations according to the type of disability. For example, around one third (34%) of employed people with intellectual disability were working as labourers, such as cleaners, in 2009, while one-fifth (20%) of employed people with sensory or speech disability were in professional occupations, such as secondary school teachers. Both people with and without disability had similar distributions across industry groups. Some industries had a higher than average (10%) disability prevalence rate, particularly Agriculture, forestry and fishing (15%) and Transport, postal and warehousing (12%). This may be partly reflective of the older age profile of people in these industries. People with disability who were working were more likely to run their own business (13%), and/or work from home (9%), than employed people without disability (10% and 6% respectively). Such situations may enhance the flexibility of working arrangements, making it easier for people with disability to participate in the labour force.
Among working-age people with disability who were employed, the most commonly reported main source of cash income was wages or salary (77%), much higher than the next most common income sources, government pensions or allowances, and business income (both 9%). Of people with disability who were employed, over one fifth (22%) received some form of government pension or allowance. This was nearly double that of people without disability who were employed and in receipt of a government pension or allowance (12%). People with disability who were working part time were more likely to receive a government pension or allowance (41%) than those working full time (10%). The main disability income support, The Disability Support Pension, can provide income to supplement earnings from work.
Employers and disability employment service providers may need to make special arrangements to ensure that employees with disability have a suitable environment in which to work. In 2009, 12% of employed people with disability required some type of special work arrangement such as being provided with special equipment or being allocated different duties. The type of disability influenced whether assistance was needed in the workplace and the kind of assistance required. Employed people with psychological or intellectual disability were likely to require special working arrangements, with nearly one fifth (18% and 16% respectively) receiving assistance, such as a support person to assist or train them on the job. People with sensory or speech disability who were working were less likely to require special working arrangements, with one tenth (9%) receiving special working arrangements. For this disability group, assistance provided took the form of special equipment (48%).
Australian participation in disability sports is lower than in able bodied sports. Public funding for disability sport focuses on the Paralympics and the Australian Paralympic Committee who have a 'Talent Search' program to provide support for potential candidates seeking to enter elite disability sports. Australia's participation at the Paralympics has included sending delegations to the Summer Paralympics since the first games in 1960, and to the Winter Paralympics since 1980.
People with Disability Australia is the national peak disability rights and advocacy organisation.
- For the purposes of Survey of Disability, Ageing and Carers, disability is defined as any limitation, restriction or impairment which restricts everyday activities and has lasted or is likely to last for at least six months. Examples range from loss of sight that is not corrected by glasses, to arthritis which causes difficulty dressing, to advanced dementia that requires constant help and supervision.
- Australian Bureau of Statistics 2009, Disability, Ageing and Carers, Australia: Summary of Findings, cat. no. 4430.0, ABS, Canberra.
- "PM introduces NDIS bill to parliament". Herald Sun. Retrieved 3 December 2012.
- Australian Bureau of Statistics. "Disability and Work". Catalogue 4102.0 Australian Social Trends March 2012.
- Beyond the Paralympics: where to for disability sport in Australia?