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Participation and Activity Limitation Survey

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The Daily

Monday, December 3, 2007

An estimated 4.4 million Canadians—one out of every seven in the population—reported having a disability in 2006, an increase of over three-quarters of a million people in five years, according to a new report.

The report was based on data from the Participation and Activity Limitation Survey (PALS). Data showed that the number of people who reported a disability increased 21.2% from 3.6 million in 2001, the last time the survey was conducted.

In 2001, 12.4% of the population reported a disability. By 2006, this rate had increased to 14.3%.

The report suggested that one factor in the increase was the aging of the population, but that this played only a partial role. Another factor may have been increased social acceptance of the reporting of disabilities.

The disabilities were reported by the respondents themselves to interviewers. The report suggested that perceptions of disability have changed significantly as society has evolved, and that respondents may be more willing to report them.

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Learning disabilities underwent a large increase between 2001 and 2006, not just for children but for adults as well. Among children aged 5 to 14, learning disabilities joined chronic conditions as the most common form of disability.

Problems related to pain, mobility and agility affected the largest number of adults. Nearly 3 million adults aged 15 and over, or 11% of this age group, reported one of these limitations.

For working-age Canadians (i.e., those aged 15 to 64), pain was the most common form of disability, followed closely by mobility and agility limitations. For seniors aged 65 and over, mobility limitations were the most common.

Just over one-third of adults who reported limitations (35.4%) experienced disabilities with mild limitations, while about one-quarter (24.8%) had moderate limitations and 39.8% had severe to very severe limitations. These proportions were roughly the same among school-aged children aged 5 to 14.

Note to readers

This article is the first in a series of data releases from the Participation and Activity Limitation Survey (PALS). It contains survey results on the prevalence, type and severity of disability by age and sex. Further releases on topics such as care received by persons with disabilities, the impact on a family of having a child with a disability and employment barriers are planned for 2008.

PALS is a national survey designed to collect information on adults and children who have a disability, that is, whose everyday activities are limited because of a condition or health problem. Funded by Human Resources and Social Development Canada and conducted by Statistics Canada, PALS provides essential information on the prevalence of various disabilities, support for persons with disabilities, their employment profile, their income and their participation in society.

Data on people with disabilities were last collected in 2001, when the previous PALS survey was conducted. The 2006 PALS provides a measure of the change in the numbers and situations of persons with disabilities in the previous five years. As well, some new content has been introduced into the survey to reflect changing technology and emerging policy and program needs.

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 that they could do.

The survey sampled approximately 48,000 individuals, of whom about 39,000 were adults and 9,000 children. The population covered by the survey consisted of persons residing in private and some collective households in all provinces and territories. Persons living in institutions and on First Nation reserves were excluded from the survey.

Population growing older, but aging only one factor in disability rate

Population aging is one of the factors that have contributed to the increase in the disability rate since 2001. But it does not explain the entire gain.

Between 2001 and 2006, the median age of the population increased from 37.0 years to 38.3 years. The median is the point at which half of the population is older and half younger.

To control for the impact of population aging on disability rates, comparisons over time were made using the "age-standardized disability rate." This removes the impact of differences in the age structure of populations among areas and over time.

If population aging had not occurred between 2001 and 2006, the disability rate in 2006 would have been 13.5%, instead of 14.3%. Thus, during this period, about 40% of the disability rate increase could be explained by population aging.

However, disability rates increased for nearly all age groups. This suggests that a change in disability profiles, reporting practices or some combination of the two may have been at play.

During this five-year period, the severity of disabilities for adults aged 15 and older increased in a stepped fashion. The largest increase (+26.6%) occurred in the number of people reporting mild disabilities, while the smallest (+16.4%) occurred in the number reporting very severe disabilities.

Children: Slight increase in proportion with disabilities

Among children aged 14 and under, an estimated 202,350 reported a disability of some kind in 2006, or 3.7% of that age group. This proportion was up from 3.3% in 2001.

Among children aged 4 and under with one or more disabilities, 69.8% had a disability related to a chronic health condition. This and developmental delays were the leading types of disabilities for both boys and girls in this age group. The most common chronic conditions reported were asthma or severe allergies, attention deficit disorder (with or without hyperactivity) and autism.

Among children aged 5 to 14, about 69.3% of those with a disability reported a learning disability. Learning disabilities affected 121,080 children aged 5 to 14 in 2006, or 3.2% of all children in this age group.

Chronic health conditions affected 66.6% of children aged 5 to 14 with a disability, while speech disabilities affected 44.8%. An estimated 78,240 school-aged children experienced a speech disability.

About half of all children aged 4 and under reported a single disability in 2006. Slightly more than 40% reported two disabilities, and just less than 9% reported three or more.

For children aged 5 to 14, the likelihood of having several disabilities was much higher. In fact, almost three-quarters of school-aged children with a disability reported having multiple disabilities, while only 26.3% experienced a single disability.

For children aged 5 to 14 with disabilities, the greatest proportion reported having a mild disability (33.5%), followed by moderate (24.1%), severe (23.5%) and very severe (18.9%) disabilities.

Adults: Increases especially important for learning disabilities

Between 2001 and 2006, the disability rate for adults (people aged 15 and older) rose from 14.6% to 16.5%. Rates increased for all types of disabilities, except developmental.

The increase was especially marked for learning disabilities. The number of Canadians aged 15 and over with learning disabilities rose by almost 40% to an estimated 631,000 in 2006.

Problems related to pain, mobility and agility affected the largest number of adults, with almost 3 million people aged 15 and over reporting one of these limitations.

An estimated 1,265,000 adults, or 5.0% of their population, reported they had a hearing disability. Nearly 815,000 (3.2%) had seeing disabilities, while about 480,000 (1.9%) reported a speech disability.

For the working-age population (15 to 64 years), the most common activity limitation was pain and discomfort, affecting three out of every four working-age people (74.4%) who had disabilities. An estimated 1.8 million people in the working-age population, or 8.6% of the total, experienced pain and discomfort-related disabilities. These were much more common for working-age women than for men.

Among seniors aged 65 and over with disabilities, three out of four (76.4%) reported a mobility limitation, ahead of pain as the most common. More than 1.3 million people, or one-third of all seniors, reported a mobility limitation.

Disabilities related to mobility were present in less than 2% of people between the ages of 15 and 24, but affected about 44% of individuals aged 75 and over.

Disability rates increase in all provinces

Disability rates ranged from a low of 10.4% in Quebec to a high of 20.0% in Nova Scotia. Of the remaining provinces, those in the East had higher disability rates, on average, than those in the West. Ontario reported a disability rate (15.5%) slightly higher than the national rate.

Between 2001 and 2006, disability rates increased in all provinces. Population aging explains more of the increases in the Atlantic provinces because their populations are among the oldest in Canada.

For the first time, in 2006, PALS was conducted in Canada's three territories. The Yukon had the highest disability rate of the territories at 13.5%, followed by the Northwest Territories at 8.6% and Nunavut at 6.4%.

Definitions, data sources and methods: survey number 3251.

The publications Participation and Activity Limitation Survey 2006: Technical and Methodological Report (89-628-XWE2007001, free), Participation and Activity Limitation Survey 2006: Analytical Report (89-628-XWE2007002, free), Participation and Activity Limitation Survey 2006: Tables (89-628-XWE2007003, free), are now available online. From the Publications module of our website, under Free Internet publications, choose Health.

For more information, or to enquire about the concepts, methods or data quality of this release, contact Susan Stobert (613-951-6496;, Social and Aboriginal Statistics Division.