Disability Statistics in the United States

Updated on February 23, 2018
ShannonPerry1986 profile image

Shannon has been actively seeking disability in WNC for a number of years and is familiar with the process of getting disability.

Many of us are aware of the frailty of our bodies. Either an aging parent or grandparent, elderly next door neighbor, or a member of our community cannot live to their fullest potential because of a physical or mental disability. It serves as a daily reminder, to those that pay attention, that we’re not immortal or invincible. But, what exactly does it mean to be disabled, and how many Americans are?

We do everything we can to keep our bodies going strong, but many aging Americans experience disability in their sunset years.
We do everything we can to keep our bodies going strong, but many aging Americans experience disability in their sunset years. | Source

What Are the Numbers?

How many is a bit easier to answer. In 2016, the number of people that reported a disability and could still live on their own was close to 13%. This includes all ethnic groups, ages, genders, and education levels. It also includes those that are still able to work despite their disability. 13% sounds like such a small number. After all, if a sweater goes on sale for 13% off, that’s not much of a steal, is it? Here’s a little perspective.

There were an estimated 322,762,018 people in the United States in 2016. 41,959,062 of those individuals were disabled. That’s more than the entire state of California.

In addition to seeing a slow increase of disabled Americans over the years, very predictably, there is an increase of disability among the aging population. By the age of 65, about 35% of adults are considered disabled. That’s not really a big surprise as a lifetime of working can take a toll. Still, mature adults with disabilities don’t represent the majority of disabled Americans. Adults from 18 to 64 represent 51% of disabled Americans.

What Exactly Is Disability & How Does It Affect Employment?

The ADA defines disability as an impairment that significantly limits at least one major part of life. It’s purely a legal term, and just because someone is disabled doesn’t mean they cannot work. Furthermore, not everyone’s limitations are obvious to the naked eye. This creates additional challenges for disabled individuals who have ‘invisible illnesses’. Sadly, people are often more understanding and sympathetic when it’s clear that someone has an impairment.

Despite having a disability, some Americans are able to work. Though, the number is significantly lower than that of healthy individuals. The number of disabled Americans who worked in 2016 was just under 36% and they earned about two-thirds as much as a healthy individual—around $22,000.

You’re reading about a lot of figures, so let’s put it in perspective.

Chattanooga Tennessee is a beautiful city where the cost of living for a family (not including rent) is higher than $2,500 a month. That works out to $30,000 a year. Assuming it is a one-person household where the primary caregiver is disabled, that family comes up $8,000 short. It’s a little better for individuals as it comes in just under $10,000, but again that doesn’t count rent. The least expensive rent in Chattanooga is about $750 a month and adds another $9,000 to the original $10,000. This doesn’t include different types of insurance, medications, or other expenses not figured into that original number. In addition, cost of living in Chattanooga falls right in the middle of the ranking for the most to least expensive places to live in the United States. All in all, Chattanooga isn’t the worst place to live when you are disabled and still able to work.

The cost of living is a serious concern for disabled Americans who don't qualify for disability insurance.
The cost of living is a serious concern for disabled Americans who don't qualify for disability insurance. | Source

Poverty and the Disabled

Poverty is a very serious situation for disabled Americans. Though it has gone down over the years, in 2016 over 20% of people with a disability lived at the poverty level. Some still may be able to work, but not enough to get out of poverty. For those that do not have any kind of medical care, it is a struggle to afford necessary medicine. Many people who do not have medical care have to go without, which can aggravate their condition more or put them in great danger. For some people, a medication means the difference between walking and being bedridden.

According to the Social Security Administration, nearly 11 million Americans received disability insurance benefits. These benefits came from work credits acquired over the years that the person was healthy. In the case of SSI—Supplement Security Income—the work history doesn’t matter as this program was established to help those with limited means.

SSDI recipients can receive upwards of $1,000 a month, depending on work credits. SSI recipients only receive a maximum of $735 for the year of 2017, though some states provide additional, small supplements and most states provide other forms of government assistance.

In Chattanooga, that’s not quite enough to cover the average cost of rent.

Many, many disabled Americans face poverty and cannot always afford essential medical care.
Many, many disabled Americans face poverty and cannot always afford essential medical care. | Source

Getting & Not Getting Disability

Many disabled Americans aren’t on disability, nor are they working. Almost anyone who has tried or is trying for disability can comment on the amount of time it takes from day one until a final decision on their case is reached. For a very few it can be very quick, but for most it takes years. And, the condition must be an existing chronic condition that’s expected to last for an extended period, or until death. This means that the disabled American applying for disability may have already been out of work for a year or more before applying.

A substantial amount of medical evidence is required for a favorable ruling on disability too. This takes time—and a lot of money. Without insurance, Medicaid or some form of help from a charity organization, it can cost several thousand dollars just to get a diagnosis, not to mention ongoing care. A single test may range from a few hundred dollars to thousands! And, patients who don’t have any prescription coverage have to rely on discount cards, like Good RX, or a company’s charity program for medicine that is essential to their care or quality of life. (Read more about the cost of just a few medical exams on howmuchisit.org.)

The wait for disability can create hardships for the patient and often aggravate a chronic condition. For example, it’s more unusual for a chronically ill patient not to develop a serious problem with depression than it is for them to develop one. Add in years of waiting for financial relief and the stress and anxiety of waiting for a favorable decision, he or she may need additional services that they otherwise may not and the process been faster.

Disability can affect anyone, young or old. With disability often comes depression which only worsens symptoms.
Disability can affect anyone, young or old. With disability often comes depression which only worsens symptoms. | Source

© 2018 Shannon Perry

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