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Disability /Activity Limitations:  Summary & Data Highlights

King County adults with activity limitations were half as likely as those without limitations to graduate from college.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability, led the U.S. Census Bureau to focus its disability questions on 6 common types of activity limitations likely to require accommodation under the ADA: ambulation, cognition, independent living, hearing, self-care, and vision.

The ADA framed disability as a civil rights issue, noting that having impairments and activity limitations restricted social, economic, and political participation for many people.

Communities Count relies on 2 data sources to provide different perspectives on disability.

  • A broad perspective comes from the annual Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance Survey (BRFSS), in which respondents are counted as having a disability if they report being limited in any way by a physical, emotional, or mental problem, or having a health problem that requires use of equipment such as a cane, wheelchair, special bed, or special telephone. According to these criteria, more than 1 in 5 King County adults has a disability.
  • A narrower focus on specific activity limitations is provided by the US Census Bureau, whose annual American Community Survey (ACS) poses 6 questions about limitations in hearing, vision, ambulation, cognition, independent living, and self-care.  These more precise questions yield data that help monitor the need for specific disability accommodations, as mandated in the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. Fewer than 1 in 10 King County residents has 1 or more of these specific activity limitations.

Broad Perspective: Disability = Any Limitations

In 2011, 23% of King County adults reported that they were limited by a physical, emotional, or mental problem, or had a health problem that required use of equipment such as a cane, wheelchair, special bed, or special telephone.

Place matters, but local disability rates haven’t changed in the past decade.

  • 20% of East Region adults reported having a disability, significantly fewer than South, North, and Seattle regions, and the county as a whole.
  • Neither regional nor county-wide disability rates changed significantly since data collection began in 2001 (data not shown).

Age, race/ethnicity, and gender were all related to disability.

  • Not surprisingly, older adults were more likely than younger adults to report disabilities. 
  • Disability rates were lower among Asians (10%), Native Hawaiians/Pacific Islanders (7%), and Hispanics (12%) than among Blacks (22%), American Indians/ Alaskan Natives (24%), and whites (24%). These differences could not be explained by the relatively younger ages of adults in the first 3 groups. 
  • Women were more likely than men to report disabling conditions.

Disability was strongly linked to employment status. The disability rate for …

  • … adults who were unable to work was 88%.
  • … retired adults was 41%.
  • … unemployed adults was 26%.
  • … employed adults was 17%.
  • … adults who were homemakers or students was 17%.

Income and education were also related to disability.

  • Disability rates were highest for adults who earned the least, although it’s not easy to know which came first – disability or low income.
  • Disability rates were lower for college graduates (20%) than for high school graduates (26%) or those with some college (27%). 

Disability was linked to relationship status, children in the household, military service, sexual orientation, and health status.

  • In general, disability rates were higher for adults without partners (27%) than for those in married or unmarried couple relationships (21%). For adults younger than age 30, however, disability rates did not differ by relationship status (data not shown).
  • The disability rate for adults in households without children (28%) was almost double that for those in households with children (15%). This difference persisted even when adults older than 45 were excluded from the analysis.
  • Veterans had a higher disability rate than non-veterans.
  • Disability was more common among lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transsexual adults than among those who were heterosexual.
  • More than half of adults in “fair” or “poor” health also reported that they had a disability.

Focus on Specific Activity Limitations

9% of King County residents were limited in at least 1 of 6 types of activities that can lead to disability: ambulation, cognition, independent living, hearing, self-care, and vision.

  • Ambulatory limitations were most common, affecting about 90,700 King County residents.
  • Cognitive limitations affected about 71,800 county residents.
  • About 67,700 county residents had difficulty living independently because of a physical, mental, or emotional condition.

Although activity limitation increased with age, most King County residents with activity limitations were younger than 65.

  • Specific activity limitation increased steeply with age, affecting half of adults age 75 and older.
  • 52% of King County residents with specific activity limitations were adults age 18-64 (about 94,100 individuals).  
  • Children and youth made up 6% of residents with limitations (about 11,200 individuals).

Despite improvements in accessibility and accommodation since passage of the ADA, educational attainment among people with disabilities is still limited (see chart above). Compared to adults without activity limitations, those with 1 or more limitations were more likely to …

  • … terminate their formal education before graduating from high school
  • … complete no more than a high school degree or equivalency certification.
  • … attend some college but leave before attaining a bachelor’s degree.

Adults with activity limitations were employed, but at significantly lower levels than those without limitations. 

  • Overall, only half of working age adults with activity limitations were employed, compared to 85% of those without limitations. 
  • Employment varied with type of activity limitation, but even those with hearing limitation, who had the highest employment rates, did not reach the employment rate of adults without limitations.
  • Among adults age 16 and older with earnings, median earnings of men with activity limitation were 61% of the median earnings of men without limitations.  For women, the ratio was 67% (data not shown).

Poverty was strongly associated with activity limitation, whether due to poor education, restricted employment options, or the limitations themselves.

  • Adults with activity limitations were more than 3 times as likely as those without limitations to live in poverty (28% vs. 9%). 
  • Even among employed adults, those with activity limitations were almost twice as likely as those without limitations to live in poverty.
  • Among adults who were not in the labor force, those with 1 or more activity limitations were almost twice as likely as those with no limitations to live in poverty.

"[My son] is born premature with many medical and physical conditions. He’s not able to move, to walk. I am worried about his development. I can’t compare him with other typical children. If I compared him with other children I would be very depressed. The program that my son attends is called Wonderland. The program helps me feel better about my son."
Mother of 17-month-old born prematurely with multiple disabilities; 2-parent family and child live in Seattle.

"So I have my medications that I need to kind of keep it flowin’ and pumpin’ but I have a co-pay. Well, it’s not $5 per medication, but $1 at the wrong time of month, and I won’t be able to take my medicine."
Single mother whose heart disease qualifies her for Social Security Disability benefits; lives with 4 children and grandchild in public housing in Seattle.