Rising disability statistics

The number of people in the UK living with a disability is rising.

It’s currently accepted that in the UK it is around 1 in 5 people, or 20%. And, from 2012 to 2019, there has been a further 3% increase in the ‘official statistics’.

The number of children reported to have a disability has risen 2%, from 6% to 8%

The number of working age adults reported to have a disability has risen 3%, from 16% to 19%.

The number of adults over State Pension age reported to have a disability has risen 1%, from 45% to 46%.

Those are the facts. Based on 2011/2012 GOV.UK Disability Facts and Figures and 2019/2020 GOV.UK Family Resources Survey. The rest of this post is mainly my thoughts, and definitely up for debate!

The impact of life expectancy

I think we’d all probably anticipate an increases in the State Pension age category as life expectancy goes up. If people are living longer, then there is more chance they will develop an impairment, and we know the likelihood of developing an impairment increases exponentially with age.

If we look at the data analysis on life expectancy by The King’s Fund, there was a subtle increase in life expectancy in the UK from 2012 to 2019, so a 1% increase in the number of people over State Pension age with a disability doesn’t seem out of the ordinary.

However, what does seem out of the ordinary, is that the increase in the number of people with a disability was actually the lowest in the oldest age bracket. A 3% rise in working age adults, and a 2% increase in children is huge. But it isn’t immediately clear exactly why.

Hidden and non-visible disabilities

We know official statistics massively understate the number of people with disabilities. They are usually a count of people who are in receipt of a disability related benefit. But many people may have hidden or non-visible disabilities.

A hidden disability is when somebody actively chooses not to disclose it. There are many reasons why somebody may choose not to disclose their impairments, but a big reason is often fear. Unfortunately, 1 in 3 people have an unconscious bias towards people with disabilities. This means people who are very capable are often overlooked for opportunities such as job offers and promotions.

A non-visual disability is when somebody has an impairment, but it is not immediately obvious to others. Some examples of non-visual disabilities are cognitive issues like Epilepsy, Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder (ADHD), Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) or Dyslexia. Other non-visible disabilities may be autoimmune disorders such as Crohn’s Disease, or even trigger specific conditions such as Chronic Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (CPTSD).

Lots of sources state that 80% of people with a visible disability also have a non-visible one. I haven’t tracked down the exact source of this data yet, but it seems to be widely circulated. So non-visible disabilities are definitely not uncommon.

It would not be unreasonable to assume that if 80% of people with a visible impairment also have a non-visible one, then a substantial amount of people will only have a non-visible disability, and are therefore not necessarily included in the data.

Another issue is that the support for mental health in the UK is terrible. The health services aren’t equipped, and we’ve been brought up with a ‘stiff upper lip’ attitude to mental health which makes many people dismissive. Dismissive of their own issues, and those of others.

Being culturally dismissive of mental health and a lack of accessible supporting services like counselling and psychiatric evaluations means people with potentially disabling cognitive issues like depression and anxiety go unsupported.

If people have hidden, non-visible or mental health related impairments, they may go undiagnosed, unsupported and are therefore missing from the statistics.

Accessibility awareness is slowly increasing. Mental health awareness is also improving. So the changes in the data could be a subtle shift in the culture. This may be giving people the confidence to disclose their impairments, get a diagnosis or get the support they need.

State Pension age increase

An interesting point for the rise in disabilities in working age adults is that between the two publish dates of the data sets, the State Pension age has actually increased. As the likelihood of impairment goes up exponentially with age, it could be that people at the ceiling of the working age category today, would have actually been in the State Pension age category if these stats were published a few years ago.

So, people who are 65 today would be classed as working age, but in the past they would be considered State Pension age. This means we can’t do a direct comparison on the data sets. Some of the 3% increase is likely to be people who are 65 and have caused some creep in the statistics of the working age category.

However, it’s highly unlikely that the 3% increase in the working age category is solely down to people turning 65, developing an impairment and being unable to retire. I can only speculate on it being a factor.

Takeaway point

I have speculated on a few reasons why the number of people with disabilities in the UK is increasing. I’d be really interested to see what other factors people think may be contributing to the rise.

My experience in accessibility tells me that the increase is expected, and also that it is inevitable. The number of people with disabilities in the UK isn’t necessarily going up, just that more people are actually being included in the statistics.

It might seem like a good thing that more people are feeling safe to disclose their impairments, are getting diagnosed and are getting the support they need. But the sad reality is that the number of people with impairments who are not being supported is (and always has been) much higher than is reported.

I guess my takeaway point of this whole article, is that accessibility is not going away! If anything it will only become more relevant as the culture and the data improves.

We know today that more than 1 in 5 people have a disability. That is evident from the data. We just can’t point to the statistics to prove exactly how many people are impacted when things are not accessible.

We all have a responsibility to make sure we are doing our best. To make sure we support everybody we can see in the data, but also support everybody we can’t.