One in five claims to be disabled as mental health cases included

Census 2021 - Jonathan Brady/PA
Census 2021 - Jonathan Brady/PA

One in five people in England and Wales now class themselves as disabled, census data show, after the category included those suffering with mental health issues for the first time.

The Office for National Statistics (ONS) published data which showed that in England, in 2021, a smaller proportion but larger number of people were disabled (17.7 per cent, 9.8 million), compared with 2011 (19.3 per cent, 9.4 million).

Similarly, in Wales, a smaller proportion but larger number of people were disabled (21.1 per cent, 670,000), compared with 2011 (23.4 per cent, 696,000).

The ONS said that for the first time in census history the disability data include people suffering with mental health issues, after changing the questions to align more closely with the definition of disability in the Equality Act (2010).

In its questionnaire to identify disability in England and Wales, the ONS asked people: "Do you have any physical or mental health conditions or illnesses lasting or expected to last 12 months or more?". If they answered yes, a further question "Do any of your conditions or illnesses reduce your ability to carry out day-to-day activities?" was presented.

'Way we identify disabled people has changed'

In contrast, people filling in the census in 2011 were asked: "Are your day-to-day activities limited because of a health problem or disability which has lasted, or expected to last, at least 12 months?".

The ONS said: “The question changed in order to collect data that more closely aligned with the definition of disability in the Equality Act (2010).

The Equality Act defines an individual as disabled if they have a physical or mental impairment that has a substantial and long-term negative effect on their ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities.

“The way we identify disabled people has therefore changed between 2011 and 2021 and this may have had an impact on the number of people identified as disabled.”

Responding to the data, Craig Moss, a research manager at disability equality charity Scope, said: “It’s good that the experiences of disabled people with mental health conditions are now being recognised in this historic survey.

“The lack of understanding about less visible conditions means people face a lot of stigma, discrimination and difficulty getting the right support.”

More households with at least one disabled person

The ONS researchers also collected data on the number of households where at least one person was identified as disabled.

They found that this included 24.8 million households across England and Wales in 2021, up 6.1 per cent from 23.4 million in 2011.

The census also published separate figures on unpaid carers and general health. The data for 2021 show that across England and Wales five million people  – including children as young as five – provide unpaid care to others with problems related to old age or long-term health conditions.

Separate data also show that health has improved across England and Wales over the past decade. In England, the proportion of people reporting very good health increased (from 45 per cent in 2011, to 47.5 per cent in 2021), whereas there were decreases in the proportion of people reporting good health (from 34.8 per cent in 2011, to 34.2 per cent in 2021), bad health (from 4.6 per cent in 2011, to 4.1 per cent in 2021) and very bad health (from 1.4 per cent in 2011, to 1.2 per cent in 2021).

Meanwhile in Wales, there were increases in the proportion of people who reported very good health (from 45.7 per cent in 2011, to 46.6 per cent in 2021) and good health (from 31.4 per cent in 2011, to 32.5 per cent in 2021), and decreases in the proportion of people who reported bad health (from 6 per cent in 2011, to 5.1 per cent in 2021) and very bad health (from 1.9 per cent in 2011, to 1.6 per cent in 2021).