Disability Statistics

Nearly 1 in 5 people in the United States have a disability, according to the 2010 Americans with Disabilities study conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau. Disability cuts across all gender, racial, economic, and other social factors, making it the largest and most diverse marginalized community.  As the Baby Boomer generation ages, more people will become disabled; nearly 29% of people between the ages of 55-64 have a disability, and that number increases by approximately 10% every five years of age. The disability community represents $200 billion in discretionary spending.

According to the 2018 U.S. Census Bureau American Community Survey, 14% of Oregon residents and 12.8% of Washington residents have a disability. Respectively, this percentage is higher than and equal to the national average for that survey, which was 12.8%. (The difference in data results between the census and the American with Disabilities study is due to differences in definition and criteria. The criteria in the Americans with Disabilities study are more reflective of disability in the United States.)

For the purposes of this project, I use the term ‘disabled’ in a broad way, similar to the World Health Organization’s definition: “disability is an umbrella term, covering impairments, activity limitations, and participation restrictions.” The umbrella use of the term illustrates the complex and diverse experiences of disability as a medical and social issue.

People with Disabilities:  There has long been an assumption that disabled people are not able to enjoy the outdoors, at least not without the assistance of non-disabled people. This is not true and represents a very limited view of disability. Disabled people are incredibly diverse and their needs vary. Not every disabled person uses a wheelchair, for example. In fact, only 1.5% of people with ambulatory disabilities use a wheelchair full time, while 4.8% use a cane, crutches, or walker. Though people who use mobility aids full time represent a small percentage of people with disabilities, available resources and information is oriented towards wheelchair users. Few parks provide trail descriptions or information about facilities; when the information is available, it often only lists ADA accessible facilities. People who write trail information seem to assume people are either wheelchair-users or completely ambulatory. This leaves out the majority of people with disabilities.

People with Chronic Illnesses: Many people with chronic illness, (defined as a long-term health condition for which there is no cure, e.g., heart disease, cancer, pulmonary disorders, and mental illness), may not identify as disabled but do experience similar restrictions to their daily activities and access to the outdoors. According to the National Health Council, approximately 40% of Americans have a chronic disease, with 33% having more than one. As many studies indicate, interaction with the outdoors provides multiple benefits that can decrease the prevalence and impact of chronic illness. People need access to resources targeted to their specific needs.

Elderly People: More than 40 million Americans are now age 65 or over. By 2030, adults over the age of 65 will reach, and remain at, 20% of the population. People are living longer and more active lives, particularly as awareness of the role of outdoor recreation in the prevention and treatment of chronic disease grows.

Family, Friends, and Caregivers: While there is definitely some overlap in the numbers of people with disabilities, chronic illness, and an aging population, it is fair to say that disability impacts everyone in some way. Those who are not currently a member of these populations often know someone who is. More than 43 million people provide care for their elderly relatives, and nearly 40 million people provide unpaid care for someone with a disability.

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