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Tuesday, December 3, 2002

Participation and Activity Limitation Survey: A profile of disability in Canada


One out of every seven Canadians aged 15 and over - an estimated 3.4 million people - reported some level of disability in 2001, according to a new report profiling people whose everyday activities are limited by a physical or psychological condition or by a health condition.

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The disabilities, which were self-reported to interviewers over the telephone, ranged from milder limitations, such as a backache, to more severe ones, such as loss of mobility because of arthritis. Of the 3.4 million adults reporting disabilities, 1.1 million reported mild levels of disability, 855,000 reported moderate levels, and 1.4 million reported severe or very severe levels.

These 3.4 million individuals represented 14.6% of the adult population. Accounting for the different levels of severity, the disability rate in the adult population was 5.0% for mild disabilities, 3.6% for moderate disabilities and 5.9% for severe and very severe disabilities.

Note to readers

This release (the first of four from this survey) summarizes the first results from the Participation and Activity Limitation Survey (PALS). The report on which it is based, titled A profile of disability in Canada in 2001, contains findings on the number of persons with disabilities, type and severity of disability by age and sex. It is available free of charge on Statistics Canada's website ().

PALS was funded by Human Resources Development Canada and conducted by Statistics Canada. The survey provides essential information on the prevalence of various disabilities, the supports for persons with disabilities, their employment profile, their income and their participation in society. The survey population included persons living in households in the provinces. As the institutionalized population is excluded, the data, particularly those related to the older age groups, should be interpreted accordingly.

Data on persons with disabilities were last collected in 1991 through the Health and Activity Limitation Survey (HALS). Major changes have been made to the structure of the sample and the questions identifying people with disabilities. As a result, comparisons cannot be made between the 1986 and 1991 HALS surveys and the 2001 PALS.

PALS uses the Word Health Oganization's framework of disability provided by the International Classification of Functioning. This framework defines disability as the relationship between body structures and functions, daily activities and social participation, while recognizing the role of environmental factors.

For the purpose of PALS, persons with disabilities are those who reported difficulties with daily living activities, or who indicated that a physical or mental condition or a health problem reduced the kind or amount of activities they could do.

The respondents' answers to the disability questions represent their perception of the situation and are therefore subjective.

In general, the disability rate was higher among women. About 1.9 million women aged 15 and over, or 15.7%, reported having a disability, compared with just over 1.5 million men (13.4%). The highest rates occurred in the age group 75 and over, where more than one-half of both men and women reported a disability.

This report is based on results of the Participation and Activity Limitation Survey (PALS), for which 35,000 adults and 8,000 children who lived in households in the provinces were interviewed. Residents of institutions, such as nursing homes, were excluded.

Population with and without disabilities, and disability rate, by age groups


Age groups Total population Population without disabilities Population with disabilities
  Number %
Total 28,991,770 25,390,510 3,601,270 12.4
0-14 5,546,020 5,365,090 180,930 3.3
1,641,680 1,615,480 26,210 1.6
3,904,330 3,749,610 154,720 4.0
1,914,220 1,843,850 70,370 3.7
1,990,110 1,905,760 84,350 4.2
15 and over 23,445,760 20,025,420 3,420,340 14.6
19,858,350 17,889,850 1,968,490 9.9
3,883,690 3,732,670 151,030 3.9
8,849,090 8,222,480 626,610 7.1
7,125,570 5,934,710 1,190,850 16.7
  65 and over
3,587,410 2,135,560 1,451,840 40.5
2,082,750 1,433,570 649,180 31.2
    75 and over
1,504,660 701,990 802,670 53.3
Note:Data exclude Yukon, Northwest Territories and Nunavut. Data may not add to total because of rounding.

Disabilities involving mobility most common among adults

The type of disability reported most often involved mobility. Just under 2.5 million people aged 15 and over had difficulty walking, climbing stairs, or moving from one room to another.

More than 1 million adults reported hearing difficulties and some 600,000 had a problem with their vision. More than half-a-million adults reported limitations that were the result of emotional, psychological or psychiatric conditions.

Among seniors aged 65 and over, mobility problems affected an estimated 1.1 million individuals. In addition, more than 887,000 seniors reported they were disabled because of pain.

Activity limitations were reported for close to 181,000 children aged 14 and under. Of these, 26,000 were younger than five and about 155,000 were school-age children. Almost 43% of children with disabilities had severe or very severe disabilities.

Although children aged 14 and under had the lowest rates of disability, they had their own unique conditions. The most widespread disability, reported for 118,000 youngsters, was related to chronic health conditions that reduced activities, such as asthma.

Learning disabilities were reported for an estimated 100,000 school-age children (5 to 14). These children accounted for almost two-thirds of all school-age children who reported disabilities.

Types of disabilities reported by adults aged 15 years and over with disabilities


Type of disability %
Mobility 71.7
Pain 69.5
Agility 66.6
Hearing 30.4
Seeing 17.4
Psychological 15.3
Learning 13.2
Memory 12.3
Speech 10.6
Developmental 3.5
Unknown 2.8
Note:Data exclude Yukon, Northwest Territories and Nunavut.

One-third of adults with disabilities experience severe or very severe activity limitations

The survey distinguished four levels of severity: mild, moderate, severe and very severe. The level of severity assigned by the survey depended not only on the severity of each type of disability, but also on the number of disabilities per individual.

For instance, persons with activity limitations related to difficulty hearing, walking half a kilometre, dressing and undressing and remembering, would have a more severe level of disability than persons reporting only occasional activity limitations related to hearing problems.

The survey found that one-third of adults with disabilities (1.1 million) had a mild degree of activity limitations. At the other end of the spectrum, at least one in four adults with disabilities, or about 919,000, experienced severe activity limitations, and an additional 480,000, or 14.0%, had very severe limitations.

Like the number of disabilities, the severity of disabilities appears to increase gradually with age.

Men were more likely than women to experience a mild degree of limitation, and a higher proportion of women than men experienced a severe level. The proportion with very severe disabilities was the same for the two sexes.

Pain most common form of disability among working-age adults

Certain types of disabilities were especially prevalent within the working-age population, resulting in a larger number of disabilities in adults aged 15 to 64.

In total, almost 2.0 million people in this working-age group reported some form of disability. These individuals accounted for about one out of every 10 working-age people in Canada. Of these, 53.2% were women.

Three-quarters of these individuals, or just under 1.5 million, reported pain as an activity limitation. Working-age women were especially affected by pain.

The survey questionnaire covered not only pain that was always present, but also pain that recurred periodically, such as migraines or backache. Nearly 70% of working-age people who had pain-related limitations experienced pain constantly; the remaining 30% were affected by recurrent periods.

Mobility problems affect 8 in 10 seniors with disabilities

An estimated 1.45 million seniors aged 65 and over, or about 40% of the total population in this age group, reported some form of disability in 2001.

Of these, mobility problems affected the vast majority - more than 1.1 million, or nearly 8 for every 10 who reported disabilities. Just over 1.0 million seniors also reported problems with agility - for example, they had difficulty getting dressed or cutting food.

An estimated 573,000 seniors, or 40% of all those with disabilities, reported severe or very severe limitations. The majority of these seniors were women, reflecting women's longer life expectancy.

Activity limitations related to memory problems are often associated with aging. An estimated 153,000 seniors, 4% of all seniors, said they were limited by memory problems or periods of confusion.

The proportion of people with activity limitations related to memory disorders increased slightly with age up to 85, when, according to PALS results, there was a decline in this type of disability. This could be explained in part by the fact that many elderly people experiencing memory disorders or periods of confusion no longer lived in a private household. As residents of an institution, they were not included in the PALS target population.

Chronic health conditions, such as asthma, most prominent among children

Almost 181,000 youngsters aged 14 and under, or 3.3% of the total in the age group, had some form of disability. These disabilities included chronic conditions, such as asthma, and other limitations, such as speech problems. Of these children, the vast majority (113,200) were boys.

The main disability in this age group was an activity limitation related to one or more chronic health conditions, such as asthma. These affected some 117,500 children, or 65% of those with disabilities. (Chronic health conditions not causing activity limitations were not considered a disability.)

One-half of children aged 14 and under who had this type of disability were limited by a single chronic health condition, nearly 30% by two such conditions, and more than 20% by three or more.

The survey also found an estimated 100,400 children aged 5 to 14 who had learning disabilities. Twice as many boys were reported as having this disability than girls.

Speech-related disabilities affected 67,000 school children, or 43% of those with disabilities. Again, twice as many boys had this limitation than girls.

Among school children aged 5 to 14, chronic conditions were also the top activity limitation, while learning disabilities were a close second.

Nearly 32% of children aged five to 14 with disabilities, roughly 49,000, were identified by their parent as having emotional, psychological or behavioural conditions that limited their activities. Developmental disabilities affected nearly 46,000, or 29.8% of children with disabilities aged 5 to 14.

Information on methods and data quality available in the Integrated Meta Data Base: survey number 3251.

The article A profile of disability in Canada, 2001 (89-577-XIE, free), the data tables A profile of Disability in Canada, 2001 - Tables (89-579-XIE, free) and the report A new approach to disability data: Changes between the 1991 Health and Activity Limitation Survey (HALS) and the 2001 Participation and Activity Limitation Survey (PALS) (89-578-XIE, free) are now available on Statistics Canada's website (). From the Our products and services page, under Browse our Internet publications, choose Free, then Health.

For more information, or to enquire about the concepts, methods or data quality of this release, contact Renée Langlois (613-951-0878) or Catherine Allan (613-951-8658), Housing, Family and Social Statistics Division.

Severity of disability among adults aged 15 years and over with disabilities, by sex


Severity of disability Both sexes Men Women
  Number % Number % Number %
Total 3,420,340 100.0 1,526,900 100.0 1,893,440 100.0
Mild 1,165,470 34.1 555,110 36.4 610,360 32.2
Moderate 855,330 25.0 375,380 24.6 479,950 25.3
Severe 919,310 26.9 383,570 25.1 535,740 28.3
Very severe 480,220 14.0 212,830 13.9 267,390 14.1
Note:Data exclude Yukon, Northwest Territories and Nunavut. Data may not add to total because of rounding.

Type of disabilities among children with disabilities aged 0 to 14 years, by age groups1


Type of disability2 Age groups
  0-4 5-14 Total
Number % Number % Number %
Hearing3 3,1606 12.1 20,590 13.3 23,750 13.1
Seeing3 2,0906 8.0 14,510 9.4 16,600 9.2
Speech4 ... ... 66,940 43.3 66,940 43.3
Mobility4 ... ... 21,150 13.7 21,150 13.7
Dexterity4 ... ... 31,410 20.3 31,410 20.3
Delay5 17,820 68.0 ... ... 17,820 68.0
Developmental4 ... ... 46,180 29.8 46,180 29.8
Learning4 ... ... 100,360 64.9 100,360 64.9
Psychological4 ... ... 49,140 31.8 49,140 31.8
Chronic3 16,400 62.6 101,110 65.3 117,510 64.9
Unknown3 2,3406 8.9 4,950 3.2 7,280 4.0
1Data exclude Yukon, Northwest Territories and Nunavut.
2The sum of the categories is greater than the population with disabilities because persons could report more than one type of disability.
3Applies to all children under 15.
4Applies to children aged 5 to 14.
5Applies to children aged 0 to 4.
6Use with caution.
...Not applicable.
Note:Data may not add to total because of rounding.

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Date Modified: 2002-12-03 Important Notices