Profile of disability among adults

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The 2006 Participation and Activity Limitation Survey: Analytical report ›

Disabilities related to pain, mobility and agility are the most common
Women are more likely to experience pain and mobility limitations
Over a million adult Canadians have a hearing disability
Nearly a half of a million Canadians report less visible disabilities
The prevalence of most types of disabilities increases with age
Learning disabilities also increased in adults between 2001 and 2006
Most adults with disabilities have multiple disabilities
Severity of disability in 2006: mild, moderate, severe or very severe?
Nearly 2 million Canadians aged 15 and over have a severe or very severe disability
The most common form of disability among working-age adults are activity limitations related to pain
Women are more likely to report activity limitations related to pain and discomfort
Pain and discomfort-related activity limitations can be constant or cyclical
One in three Canadians aged 65 and over experience mobility limitations
Mobility limitations are more common for older women
Memory difficulty is the most common non-visible limitation for older Canadians

Disabilities related to pain, mobility and agility are the most common

Problems related to pain, mobility and agility affect the largest number of adults 15 years of age or older. Close to 3 million Canadian adults (approximately 11% of the total population aged 15 and over) reported one of these limitations.

Not only are these the most prevalent disabilities, many of these Canadians experience more than one of these problems. Problems related to mobility, such as walking, climbing stairs, or carrying an object a short distance, are often associated with agility problems or with pain. Approximately 70% of Canadians who reported one of these three disabilities were also affected by the other two.

Table 9 Prevalence of disabilities in adults 15 years of age or older by type of disability, Canada, 2006. Opens a new browser window.

Table 9 Prevalence of disabilities in adults 15 years of age or older by type of disability, Canada, 2006

Text box 5
Types of disabilities among adults

The questions in PALS enabled us to identify the following types of disabilities in adults (15 years of age or older):

Hearing: Difficulty hearing what is being said in a conversation with one other person, in a conversation with three or more persons, or in a telephone conversation.

Seeing: Difficulty seeing ordinary newsprint or clearly seeing someone's face from 4 meters away (12 feet).

Speech: Difficulty speaking or being understood.

Mobility: Difficulty walking half a kilometre or up and down a flight of stairs, about 12 steps without resting, moving from one room to another, carrying an object of 5 kg (10 pounds) for 10 metres (30 feet) or standing for long periods.

Agility: Difficulty bending, dressing and undressing oneself, getting into or out of bed, cutting own toenails, using fingers to grasp or handling objects, reaching in any direction (for example, above one's head) or cutting own food.

Pain: Limited in the amount or kind of activities that one can do because of a long-term pain that is constant or reoccurs from time to time (for example, recurrent back pain).

Learning: Difficulty learning because of a condition, such as attention problems, hyperactivity or dyslexia, whether or not the condition was diagnosed by a teacher, doctor or other health professional.

Memory: Limited in the amount or kind of activities that one can do due to frequent periods of confusion or difficulty remembering things. These difficulties may be associated with Alzheimer's disease, brain injuries or other similar conditions.

Developmental disabilities: Cognitive limitations due to an intellectual disability or developmental disorder such as Down's syndrome, autism or an intellectual disability caused by a lack of oxygen at birth.

Psychological: Limited in the amount or kind of activities that one can do due to the presence of an emotional, psychological or psychiatric condition, such as phobias, depression, schizophrenia, drinking or drug problems.

Other 1 : The type of disability is 'other' if the respondent answered YES to the general questions on activity limitations, but did not provide any YES to the questions about type of disability that followed.


1. In 2006 the disability type 'unknown' was renamed 'other'.

Women are more likely to experience pain and mobility limitations

For all age groups, women were more likely to have a disability related to pain or mobility. With the exception of the youngest age groups, this is also true for disabilities related to agility. In 2006, among adults 15 years of age or older, women with disabilities related to mobility, pain or agility represented slightly more than 13% of the Canadian population, whereas men represented slightly over 9%. Interestingly, not only do the rates tend to increase with age, the gender gap does as well. For example, 38.5% of women aged 75 or older stated that pain limited their daily activities, whereas only 28.8% of men in the same age group made the same statement.

Over a million adult Canadians have a hearing disability

With respect to sensory disorders (seeing, hearing or speech), approximately 1,265,000 adults (5.0%) reported that they had a hearing disability. Close to 815,000 (3.2%) adults had seeing disabilities and about 480,000 (1.9%) stated that they had a speech disability. The rates of sensory disability are similar for men and women until the age of 65 and over. Women aged 65 and over (10.1%) are more likely than men (7.8%) to have a seeing disability.

Chart 12 Prevalence of disabilities in adults 15 years of age or older, by type of disability and gender, Canada, 2006. Opens a new browser window.

Chart 12 Prevalence of disabilities in adults 15 years of age or older, by type of disability and sex, Canada, 2006

Nearly a half of a million Canadians report less visible disabilities

As noted earlier, the 2006 PALS attempted to distinguish and recognize less visible types of disabilities such as those associated with psychological problems, memory, learning difficulties, and developmental disabilities. These types of disabilities are subject to special challenges in data collection as the measurement of these types of disabilities is based on the subjective perception of the respondent. This being said, in 2006, about half of a million adults 15 years of age or older reported disabilities of an emotional, psychological, or psychiatric nature (2.3%), memory problems or periods of confusion (2.0%), and learning disabilities (2.5%).

The prevalence of most types of disabilities increases with age

As indicated by overall disability rates, most types of disabilities increase with age. In 2006, this proved to be true for disabilities associated with mobility, agility, hearing, seeing and pain. Thus, while disabilities related to mobility are present in less than 2% of Canadians between the ages of 15 and 24, they affect about 44% of people aged 75 and over (see Chart 13). Despite being much less pronounced, the increase in prevalence according to age is also present in memory and speech disorders. In both cases, the percentage of Canadians reporting these limitations rise from about 1% of adults between the ages of 15 and 24 to around 5% in those aged 75 and over.

Chart 13 Prevalence of disability in adults 15 years of age or older, by type of disability and age, Canada, 2006. Opens a new browser window.

Chart 13 Prevalence of disability in adults 15 years of age or older, by type of disability and age, Canada, 2006

However, this pattern is not seen for all types of disabilities (see Chart 14). For example, disabilities associated with emotional, psychological, or psychiatric problems peak at 3.3% for adults aged 45 to 64 and then decrease in proportion to 2.1% for adults aged 75 and over. Learning disabilities do not fluctuate significantly by age, nor do developmental disabilities. In fact, developmental disabilities show a decrease with age. This may be because PALS does not include Canadians living in institutions. As a result of the de-institutionalization that has occurred in Canada in the last thirty years, it is possible that more young people with developmental disabilities live at home and are therefore captured in the survey.

Chart 14 Prevalence of disabilities in adults 15 years of age or older by type of disability and age, Canada, 2006. Opens a new browser window.

Chart 14 Prevalence of disabilities in adults 15 years of age or older by type of disability and age, Canada, 2006

Learning disabilities also increased in adults between 2001 and 2006

The disability rate for adults rose from 14.6% in 2001 to 16.5% in 2006. As shown in Chart 15, the rates for the majority of disability types increased. The exceptions were psychological and developmental disabilities, and disabilities related to memory. The increase was especially important for learning disabilities. As shown above in Chart 14, learning disabilities are not more common in people as they age. Thus, population aging has no effect on the number of learning disabilities, unlike such disabilities as mobility, agility and pain that become much more common in an older population.

Chart 15 Disability rate by type of disability for adults 15 years of age or older, Canada 2001 and 2006. Opens a new browser window.

Chart 15 Disability rate by type of disability for adults 15 years of age or older, Canada 2001 and 2006

Most adults with disabilities have multiple disabilities

As discussed earlier for mobility, agility and pain, disability in Canada is often multi-faceted. Table 10 shows the numbers of Canadian adults who report more than one disability. In fact, 81.7% of adults living with disabilities have several, as opposed to only 18.4% who report having just one disability.

Table 10 Number of disabilities reported in adults 15 years of age or older with disabilities, Canada, 2006. Opens a new browser window.

Table 10 Number of disabilities reported in adults 15 years of age or older with disabilities, Canada, 2006

Severity of disability in 2006: mild, moderate, severe or very severe?

The severity of a disability can have profound effects on the types of limitations experienced by a person with a disability. The 2006 PALS separates the 4.2 million adults with disabilities into four levels of severity: mild, moderate, severe and very severe.

The level of severity depends on the frequency and intensity of the limitations associated with the disability. Thus, the severity of a disability can be driven by two factors, the cumulative effect of multiple disabilities or the overall effect of one significant disability. For example, a person who has no difficulty walking and climbing stairs but cannot stand in line for more than twenty minutes would have a mild mobility-related disability. A person who can only move around in a wheelchair would have their mobility more severely limited, and one who is bedridden for a long term period would have a very severe mobility-related disability. The levels of severity for individual disabilities are combined to provide a measure of the overall level of severity.

PALS distinguishes ten types of disabilities among adults and the level of severity will increase with the number of disabilities affecting each individual. (For further information on the development of the severity scale, see the box entitled Severity of disability).

Mild disabilities were the most common in Canada for 2006 with slightly more than one third (35.4%) of adults with disabilities experiencing mild limitations (see Table 11). Conversely, approximately one in eight (13.5%) adults with disabilities reported having a very severe limitation. This group grows to nearly 40% of adults with a disability when the severe and very severe categories are combined. Mild limitations were more common for men (37.9%) than women (33.4%). Conversely, women were more likely to report severe or very severe limitations (42.2%) compared to men (36.9%).

Nearly 2 million Canadians aged 15 and over have a severe or very severe disability

As shown in Table 12, the 2006 PALS reveals that 1.7 million people, or 6.6% of Canadians aged 15 and over had a severe or very severe disability. Moderate disabilities were reported by 4.1% of Canadians aged 15 and over (1,045,500 people) while 5.9% of that age group indicated a mild disability (1,492,580 people). The patterns of severity in disability were relatively unchanged for adults between 2001 and 2006.

Table 11 Severity of disability among adults aged 15 years and over with disabilities, by sex, Canada, 2006. Opens a new browser window.

Table 11 Severity of disability among adults aged 15 years and over with disabilities, by sex, Canada, 2006

Table 12 Disability rate for adults aged 15 years and over, by severity of disability, Canada, 2001 and 2006. Opens a new browser window.

Table 12 Disability rate for adults aged 15 years and over, by severity of disability, Canada, 2001 and 2006

The most common form of disability among working-age adults are activity limitations related to pain

Pain and discomfort is the most common activity limitation for the working-age population with disabilities, affecting three out of four persons (74.4%). Looking at all working-age Canadians, this indicates that 8.6%, or 1.8 million persons, experience pain and discomfort-related disabilities.

Women are more likely to report activity limitations related to pain and discomfort

Pain and discomfort-related activity limitations are much more common for working-age women than for men. PALS 2006 found that 79.0% of working-age women with disabilities reported pain-related limitations, compared to 69.3% of working-age males with disabilities. Looking at the Canadian population as a whole, 9.5% of working-age women report activity limitations related to pain versus 7.6% of males.

Pain and discomfort-related activity limitations can be constant or cyclical

Pain and discomfort can be a constant or cyclical part of many people's lives; for this reason, the PALS addressed not only constant pain but also recurring pain such as migraines or backaches. Overall, 72.1% of working-age people with pain-related limitations experience pain constantly while the remaining 27.9% experience recurring or cyclical episodes of pain.

One in three Canadians aged 65 and over experience mobility limitations

The profile of people with disabilities changes as age increases; disability types that were prevalent at younger ages are replaced by different disability types, and the severity of the disability increases. This is not surprising given that older people experience increasing limitations to their daily activities due to declining health. For people with disabilities aged 65 and over, three out of four people (76.4%) reported a mobility limitation, replacing pain as the most common limitation. Considering Canada as a whole, more than 1.3 million people or 33.1% of all Canadians aged 65 or over reported a mobility limitation (see Table 13).

Table 13 Prevalence of mobility-related disability among adults aged 65 years and over, by age groups and sex, Canada, 2006. Opens a new browser window.

Table 13 Prevalence of mobility-related disability among adults aged 65 years and over, by age groups and sex, Canada, 2006

Mobility limitations are more common for older women

Women aged 65 and older are more likely to report mobility limitations than their male counterparts, with 37.2% of all women in Canada aged 65 and over reporting mobility limitations compared to 28.1% of men.

Memory difficulty is the most common non-visible limitation for older Canadians

Activity limitations related to memory difficulties are the most common non-visible limitation reported for people aged 65 and older, affecting 10% of all persons with disabilities in this age group. Overall, 4.3% of Canadian seniors experience activity limitations related to memory difficulties. As well, the frequency of reporting memory limitations increases with age all the way up to the 85 and over age group.


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