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Disability: Federal Survey Definitions, Measurements, and Estimates

Disability definitions are important for federal and state policies, programs, and planning, as well as for individuals with disabilities and their families. How federal and state programs define disability determines who will qualify for and how they will receive benefits from Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and state and local programs. The definition of disability ultimately determines the costs of these programs, and it also determines who will be protected from disability-based discrimination.

This AARP Public Policy Institute data digest, by Steven R. Gregory, examines how four national surveys sponsored by the federal government define and measure a critical aspect of disability: whether the disability limits a person's ability to perform everyday life activities. The four surveys explored are the American Community Survey, the Survey of Income and Program Participation, the National Health Interview Survey, and the National Long-Term Care Survey. The report begins with a brief discussion of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) and how it defines disability. Next, the definitions, measurements, and prevalence of disability as it limits everyday life activities are examined, using data for the most recent year available, in the four surveys. Finally, the report concludes by discussing the sources of some of the variation in disability data and by illustrating how broader definitions of disability yield higher prevalence rates. For comparability, data are reported for persons of all ages and for persons age 65 or older.

For further information, please contact Elizabeth Clemmer at 202/434-3911. (8 pages)

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