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Office on Disability

Prevalence and Impact


According to a 1997 U.S. Bureau of the Census report, nearly 54 million Americans have an activity limitation/disability associated with a long-term physical, sensory, or cognitive condition.  The prevalence of disability in the U.S. population has been measured fairly consistently at 18-19 percent.

Question:  What is the definition of “disability?” 

A number of programmatic definitions of disability exist today. Most of these definitions are used to determine eligibility for benefits such as Social Security Disability Insurance, special education placement, and compensation programs associated with service-connected injuries.

Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, Section 503 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, and Section 188 of the Workforce Investment Act, a person with a disability is generally defined as someone who (1) has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more "major life activities," (2) has a record of such an impairment, or (3) is regarded as having such an impairment. 


  • Age

    According to data from the 2001 Census survey, the percentage of any type of disability in the civilian noninstitutionalized population over 5 years of age is: 5 to 15 years (5.8%), 16 to 64 years (18.6%); 65 years and over (41.9%). 

  • Older Adults

    In 1997, more than half of the older population (54.5%) reported having at least one disability of some type (physical or nonphysical). Over a third (37.7%) reported at least one severe disability. Over 4.5 million (14.2%) had difficulty in carrying out activities of daily living (ADLs) and 6.9 million (21.6%) reported difficulties with instrumental activities of daily living (IADLs).  For more information on older adults and disabilities please visit

    (Source: Administration on Aging  

  • Gender

    As many as one in five women in the United States are living with disabilities. Depending on the definition used, 19.9 to 28.6 million U.S. women have disabilities.  For more information on women and disabilities please visit (Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)

  • Race/Ethnicity

    According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Census 2000, (ages 5 and older):  Black or African American alone (24.3%); American Indian and Alaska Native alone (24.3%); Asian alone (16.6%); Native Hawaiian and Other Pacific Islander alone (5.1%); Some other race alone (19.9%); Two or more races (21.7%); White alone, not Hispanic or Latino (18.3%); Hispanic or Latino (of any race) (20.9%) have a disability.

  • Income

    According to a 1997 U.S. Bureau of the Census report - The poverty rate among the population 25-to-64 years old with no disability was 8 percent, compared with 10 percent for people with a nonsevere disability and 28 percent for people with a severe disability.

  • Education Level

    People with disabilities are less likely to be highly educated than are people without disabilities. Specifically, it is more likely that people with disabilities will not have a high school diploma than it is for people without disabilities (22% versus 9%). At the other end of the education spectrum, it is less likely for people with disabilities to have graduated from college than it is for people without disabilities (12% versus 23%).

    Excerpted from the N.O.D./Harris 2000 Survey of Americans with Disabilities Date: 07/25/2001

    Department of Education:

  • Employment

    In the year 2002, an estimated 30.9 percent (plus or minus 1.0 percentage points) of civilian, non-institutionalized, men and women with a disability, aged 18-64 in the United States were employed. In other words, 4,166,000 out of 13,474,000 (or about one in 3) civilian, non-institutionalized, men and women with a disability, aged 18-64 in the United States were employed. The estimated percentage above is based on a sample of 9,263 persons who participated in the Current Population Survey (CPS). (Houtenville, Andrew J. 2004. "Disability Statistics in the United States." Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Rehabilitation Research and Training Center, Posted May 15, 2003).

    Department of Labor:


  • From 1987 to 1993, the number of Americans who were identified as having chronic conditions that limit their activity grew by 22 percent while the number who was unable to work because of a chronic condition grew by 33 percent.  A Department of Labor study indicates that more than half of the non-working adults with disabilities encountered difficulties in seeking employment.
  • In 2000, 8.7 million people with disabilities were poor — a substantially higher proportion (17.6 percent) than was found among people aged 5 and older without disabilities (10.6 percent). (Census)
  • The cost of direct government and private payments to support people with disabilities of employable age who do not have jobs is estimated to be $232 billion annually. Another $195 billion in earnings and taxes are lost each year because Americans with disabilities are unemployed. (AAPD)

To Learn More…

For more information on data associated with persons with disabilities, please visit:


Disability and Health Team
Division of Human Development and Disability
CDC/National Center on Birth Defects and Developmental Disabilities
1600 Clifton Road
Mail Stop E-88
Atlanta, Georgia 30333

FAX 404.498.3060
TDD 404.498.3049