Growth in disability rates from 2001 to 2006

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The 2006 Participation and Activity Limitation Survey: Analytical report ›

The Canadian population aged between 2001 and 2006
An aging population accounts for some of the growth in the disability rate
But population aging does not explain the whole increase in disability rate
Canadians' perceptions of what constitutes a disability can change
The number of persons reporting a mild disability increased by the greatest amount

Text Box 2
Changes in the PALS target population – 2001 to 2006

The PALS target population in 2006 differed slightly from that in 2001. The territories were included for the first time and were joined by persons living in Aboriginal communities who were covered in 2001 by the Aboriginal Peoples Survey (APS). Lastly, the method of collecting information on non-institutional collective dwellings, such as residences for senior citizens, was modified slightly for the 2006 Census. Unlike 2001, persons living in these types of residences were sent the long form of the 2006 Census–one out of every 5 households, comparable to regular, private dwellings–containing the activity limitation section. This newly available census information allowed these individuals to be included as part of the PALS 2006 target population.

In order to compare the results from 2001 with those of the current PALS a subset of the 2006 population was produced that excluded territories, persons from Aboriginal communities, and individuals living in residences for senior citizens. This allows direct comparisons between 2001 and 2006, in addition to analysis of the new 2006 target population. All comparisons made between 2001 and 2006 use these adjusted data.

Between 2001 and 2006 the number of persons who reported having a disability increased by three-quarters of a million people (+21.2%), reaching 4.4 million in 2006. At the same time, the non-disabled population experienced lesser growth, increasing by 3.3% to reach 26.2 million people. As a result, the national disability rate increased 1.9 percentage points from its level of 12.4% in 2001 to reach 14.3% in 2006.

The Canadian population aged between 2001 and 2006

Demographic shifts in the structure of the Canadian population have an effect on the disability rate. Because of the higher disability rates for older Canadians, an aging population will produce a higher overall disability rate without any change in reporting patterns.

As reported in the 2006 Census report A Portrait of Canada by Age and Sex, released on July 17, 2007, Canada's population continues to age as the baby boom generation approaches retirement age. Between 2001 and 2006, the median age of Canadians increased from 37.0 years to 38.3 years. Chart 2 shows the change in the percentage distribution of the population in Canada by age.

Chart 2 Distribution of Canadian population, by age, 2001 and 2006. Opens a new browser window.

Chart 2 Distribution of Canadian population, by age, 2001 and 2006

An aging population accounts for some of the growth in the disability rate

Aging of the population is one of the factors contributing to the increase in the disability rate since 2001. The extent of the contribution of aging to this increase can be determined by standardizing the population distribution of 2006 to that of 2001.

The growth in the Canadian population can be used to estimate the increase in the 2001 disability rate due to an aging population. At the same time, the effect of changing disability profiles and reporting tendencies can be removed by holding constant the proportion of persons with disabilities in each age group.

Chart 3 Disability rates for Canada, 2001, 2006 and 2006 age standardized. Opens a new browser window.

Chart 3 Disability rates for Canada, 2001, 2006 and 2006 age standardized

Chart 3 shows the 2006 disability rates standardized to the 2001 population; this provides an indication of the amount of the growth in disability that can be explained by population aging. To control for the impact of population aging on disability rates, comparisons over time are made using the "age-standardized disability rate." The latter removes the effects of differences in the age structure of populations among areas and over time. Looking at the data for Canada, the disability rate in 2006 would have been 13.5% instead of 14.3% if population aging had not occurred. Thus, between 2001 and 2006, about 40% of the disability rate increase is explained by the aging of the Canadian population.

But population aging does not explain the whole increase in disability rate

Although aging accounted for 0.8 percentage points of the 1.9 percentage point increase in disability rates over the period, disability rates increased for nearly all age groups (see Chart 4), suggesting that a change in disability profiles, reporting practices, or some combination of the two may also be at play.

Chart 4 Disability rate by age, Canada, 2001 and 2006. Opens a new browser window.

Chart 4 Disability rate by age, Canada, 2001 and 2006

Canadians' perceptions of what constitutes a disability can change

The PALS is a self-reported measure of activity limitation. How respondents perceive their limitations, and willingness to report them, greatly influences the type of answers they provide. Perceptions of disability are fluid and ever changing as society continues to evolve. Societal definitions of disability have changed dramatically throughout history, beginning with beliefs rooted in supernatural or religious sources. These were followed by medical models that focused solely on health conditions as the source of disability ignoring the broader environment of the individual. The 2006 PALS data suggest that Canadian society has continued to progress along this continuum towards increased social acceptance of the reporting of a disability.

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Severity of Disability

An index measuring the severity of the disability was constructed based on the answers to the survey questions. Points were given according to the intensity and the frequency of the activity limitations reported by the respondent. A single score was computed for each type of disability. Each score was then standardized in order to have a value between 0 and 1. The final score is the average of the scores for each type of disability.

Since the survey questions differ depending on the age of the respondent, a different scale was constructed for adults (15 years and over), for children under 5 and for children aged 5 to 14. Each scale was then divided into different severity levels. The scale for adults and for children aged 5 to 14 was divided into four groups (that is, mild, moderate, severe and very severe), while the scale for children under 5 was divided into two groups (that is, mild to moderate and severe to very severe).

The number of persons reporting a mild disability increased by the greatest amount

Persons with mild disabilities include individuals who may be on the margin between reporting and not reporting an activity limitation. If people's tendency to report their particular health problem or physical or mental condition as an activity limitation increases, then the rate of mild disabilities would be expected to rise. Those with moderate and severe disabilities are less likely to not report their disability status.

Chart 5 shows that over the five-year period between 2001 and 2006, the severity of disabilities for adults (age 15 and older) increased in a stepped fashion with the largest increase in the number of persons reporting mild disabilities (+26.6%) followed by moderate (+20.6%), severe (+19.2%), and very severe (+16.4%).

Chart 5 Growth between 2001 and 2006 in the number of adults aged 15 and older reporting mild, moderate, severe and very severe disabilities, Canada. Opens a new browser window.

Chart 5 Growth between 2001 and 2006 in the number of adults aged 15 and older reporting mild, moderate, severe and very severe disabilities, Canada


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