Understanding Disabilities

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, during the past 30 years, the accepted definitions of disability have been changing.  In the 1970s, the concept of a disability referred to an underlying physical or mental condition. Today, disability is seen as a complex interaction between a person and his or her environment. It includes emotional, physical, intellectual, and sensory impairments that create a barrier to that person’s participation in everyday life.  It is the largest minority and one anyone can join. In places where the life span is over 70 years, people spend on average about 8 years–11.5 percent of their life span–living with disabilities (World Health Organization).

Today we know there are 54 million people in the US who report having a disability. They represent 19 percent of the civilian population.

By age —

  • 5 percent of children 5 to 17 have disabilities.
  • 10 percent of people 18 to 64 have disabilities.
  • 38 percent of adults 65 and older have disabilities.

Source: 2008 American Community Survey

Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities are substantial problems in mental or physical functioning, with onset before the age of 22 and of indefinite duration. Examples are autism, cerebral palsy, epilepsy, certain other neuropathies, and intellectual disability.  About 1 in 6 children in the U.S. had a developmental disability in 2006-2008.  Autism is the fastest growing developmental disability. One in 88 children was diagnosed with autism in 2011, compared with 1 in 150 in 2000.

Mental illnesses are serious medical conditions. They cannot be overcome through “will power” and are not related to a person’s “character” or intelligence. The National Institute of Mental Health reports that 1 in 4 adults experience a mental health disorder in a given year, 1 in 17 Americans live with a serious mental illness. The World Health Organization has reported that by 2020, Major Depressive illness will be the leading cause of disability in the world for women and children.

There is a great need for the services that LIFEDesigns and other similar providers offer.


  • People with disabilities are overwhelmingly poor, two times more likely to live at or below the poverty level
  • A two-way link between poverty and disability creates a vicious circle. Poor people are more at risk of acquiring a disability due to lack of access to good nutrition, health care, sanitation, safe living and working conditions. Once this occurs, people face barriers to the education, employment, and public services that can help them escape poverty.


  • A 2004 U.S. survey found that only 35 percent of working-age persons with disabilities are in fact working compared to 78 percent of those without disabilities. Two-thirds of those unemployed said they want to work.
  • One of the most common reasons employers give for not hiring is fear of costly accommodations.  The Department of Labor states the employers in a 2010 study reported that (56%) of accommodations cost absolutely nothing, and the rest were less than $600.
  • Companies who hire report their employees with disabilities have better retention rates, reducing the high cost of turnover.  Other surveys show the retention rate after one year of employment for those workers is 85%.


  • The U.S. Surgeon General reports 10 percent of children and adolescents in the United States have serious emotional and mental disorders causing significant problems in school and with peers.
  • Only 9% of children who have delays at 9 months receive early intervention and at 24 months only 12% (NETAC, 2011).


  • Persons with disabilities are more likely to be victims of violence, according to a 2004 study, and less likely to obtain police intervention, legal protection or preventive care.
  • Research indicates that violence against children with disabilities occurs at annual rates at least 1.7 times greater than for their peers without disabilities.


  • In 2010 the average person receiving supplemental security income (a program for individuals with disabilities in need) paid 112% of their monthly income to rent a one bedroom unit.
  • Since 1998 the housing affordability gap for people with disabilities has almost doubled as the cost of rental property has increased (Priced Out, 2010).

Unfortunately, in the state and across the nation, the funding does not match the need

  • The National Association of State Mental Health Program Directors Research Institute reported in February 2010 that 50% of states have cut mental health services and reduced the number of people served during the recession.  Indiana cut $4.1 million since 2009.
  • Since 2009, there has been an approximate 20% reduction in services for people currently in services funded by the Medicaid Waiver, a program that provides community based non-institutional supports to help them live at home with their families or move into supported living arrangements within the community.  Without these supports, these individuals could be forced into nursing homes or other more expensive living options.
  • Without treatment the consequences of mental illness for the individual and society are staggering: unnecessary disability, unemployment, substance abuse, homelessness, inappropriate incarceration, suicide and wasted lives; The economic cost of untreated mental illness is more than 100 billion dollars each year in the United States.
  • Studies have shown that early intervention for children with developmental disabilities leads to gains in all areas and reduces the likelihood of the need for special education services (National Technical Assistance Center, 2011).

Learn how you can help LIFEDesigns continue to provide these much needed services to our clients with disabilities for years to come: go to our SUPPORT page to find out more.