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New figures from Census Bureau can reshape image of disability
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Mar. 20, 2001 -- On Friday (March 16), the Census Bureau released new figures on the numbers of individuals in the U.S. who say they have disabilities. A story from the Associated Press's Genaro C. Armas is so far the only media attention the new figures have garnered.

Armas led his story with this: "Half the adult Americans with disabilities have jobs, and the employed typically earn less than the average American, new Census Bureau estimates show. The disparity is worse among those people whose disabilities are considered 'severe.'"

The data, from the Census Bureau's 1997 Survey of Income and Program Participation (SIPP), revealed that 52.6 million people (19.7 percent of the population) had some level of disability. The report, "Americans with Disabilities: 1997," is available online at

The newsworthy fact -- that half of those reporting disability have jobs -- is actually an artifact of the definition used in the survey. For decades, advocates worked to get the Census Bureau to use functional definitions of disability rather than work definitions -- and we are now reaping the result: people who have jobs but who also have functional limitations are being defined as "disabled." Years ago, anyone who was working were considered "not disabled."

"The Survey of Income and Program Participation contains questions about the ability to perform a number of activities," says report author Jack McNeill of the Census Bureau. "If an individual reported having difficulty performing a specific activity, a follow-up question usually determined if the level of difficulty was severe or not."

The SIPP is a household survey, so the data exclude people in institutions. Approximately 32,000 households were interviewed to obtain the data.

Survey results show that:

* In 1997, 52.6 million people (19.7 percent of the population) had some level of disability and 33.0 million (12.3 percent of the population) had a severe disability.

* About 10.1 million individuals (3.8 percent of the population) needed personal assistance with one or more "activities of daily living" or "instrumental activities of daily living."

* Among the population 15 years old and over, 2.2 million used a wheelchair. Another 6.4 million used some other ambulatory aid such as a cane, crutches, or a walker.

* About 7.7 million individuals 15 years old and over had difficulty seeing the words and letters in ordinary newspaper print; of them, 1.8 million were unable to see.

* The poverty rate among the population 25 to 64 years old with no disability was 8.3 percent; it was 27.9 percent for those with a severe disability.

The figures of those who have difficulty seeing ordinary newsprint -- 7.7 million says the Census Bureau -- are similar to those reported earlier this month by the Centers for Disease Control. An article about that finding -- from the same SIPP data this Census Bureau report used -- is online at the Center's website at

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