Are there seven million adults of working age who have disabilities?

I listened to Damian Green’s first speech to the Conservative Party as the Work and Pensions Secretary in the hope of getting some clue about the direction of policy.   Green stated that benefits were there to provide ‘work for those who can, help for those who could, care for those who can’t, care for those who can’t.’  That statement would have fitted comfortably with anything said by the Labour government 1997-2010, but it has always been misconceived; benefits are about far more.  Likewise the claim that “doing a job is for  most people the best way out of poverty”.  Most poor people of working age are working.

The point that caught my attention was a little factoid: the claim that there are seven million people of working age with disabilities.  As Secretary of State, he ought to know what the latest figures are, and I immediately checked to see if there was a new DWP survey.  If there is, it’s not in the public domain yet.  The figure comes from a statement made by the Disability Rights Commission in 2004, which used the Labour Force Survey to come to a figure of 6.8 million people.  It’s very different from the main  government figures, published in 2014 and based in the Family Resources Survey, which put the figure for 2011/12 at 5.7 million.  Both figures mean that people of working age now substantially outnumber older people with disabilities – a reverse of the evidence for decades before.

Both these figures are however unreliable, for several reasons.

  • The first and most obvious problem lies in the difference between them. They were produced for different purposes, from different surveys  – the older figures were needed to identify disability discrimination, and some conditions might be subject to discrimination without necessarily implying any major limitation of capacity.  The lower  government figures are intended to refer to people who have significant difficulties with day to day activities, and they note that “these estimates do not reflect the total number of people covered by the DDA.”  The discrepancy in numbers is very large, however, and not explicitly accounted for.
  • It was observed in the mid-1990s that the figures are influenced by social and economic conditions around people – the counts have gone up during recessions, and do not seem to come down afterwards.  The numbers of people who do not recognise danger have apparently doubled – might that that be because the public perception and social definition of danger has changed?
  • Certain other categories have changed in ways that cannot be accounted for by changes in the status of the population.  Incontinence, and communication difficulties appear to have increased by 50% between 2002 and 2012.
  • It is not clear whether the answers to surveys can be taken at face value.  Other work has shown that fully three-quarters of people with impairments either say they are not disabled, or that they are disabled sometimes. Both sets of figures are based in survey evidence asking people about their circumstances, and most people with disabilities cannot answer those questions with confidence.

I don’t know what the true figures are.  I am concerned however that in policy terms, adopting an ever-broadening definition of disability has lost sight of the crucial role that benefits play in providing for sickness and incapacity, which are are not the same thing as disability and need to be identified and responded to in their own right.

One comment

  1. Gareth Morgan

    That’s a very illuminating piece. How could we (could we?) get better figures and of what? If we can’t agree what disabled means then it seems pointless to design measures that help those with ‘it’ or even to try to count it.

Leave a Reply