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A health issue that affects a significant portion of the American population is often overlooked with the news of cancer rates rising, diabetes rates in children and ebola scares, among others. More than 1 in 5 Americans are disabled, and as our population ages, the burden of disability will only continue to grow.

Not all Americans know what counts as a disability. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) a disability is “any condition of the body or mind that makes it more difficult for the person with the condition to do certain activities and interact with the world around them.” These can include impairments in vision, thinking, hearing, movement, social relationships, mental health and more.

Disabilities can be caused by a number of things. The CDC explains that some disabilities begin before birth (caused by single gene disorders, birth defects, disorders of chromosomes, etc.) while others are associated with developmental conditions like autism or attention-deficit disorder. Other disabilities are caused by injury, longstanding condition (such as diabetes) or other diseases that are progressive or intermittent.

With the recent 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, the experts at HealthGrove were curious to see which disabilities are the most prevalent in the U.S. They turned to the most recent available data from the Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System (BRFSS), which conducts an annual phone survey that asks Americans ages 18 and older two questions:

  • Are you limited in any way in activities because of physical, mental, or emotional problems?
  • Do you have a cane, a wheelchair, a special bed, a special telephone, or other special equipment?

Those who answered “yes” to certain impairments were identified as having a disability, while respondents who refused to answer, or answered “no” or “I don’t know” were excluded from analysis.

Of over 53 million Americans who reported a disability, the most common disabilities were the following:

  • Disability in mobility (13%) including amputation, cerebral palsy, back disorders, arthritis, etc.
  • Disability in cognition (10.6%) including down syndrome, traumatic brain injury, dementia and more.
  • Disability in independent living (6.5%) including difficulty doing errands alone, visiting a doctor’s office, shopping etc.
  • Disability in vision (4.6%) including legal blindness, complications from diabetes, etc.

The prevalence of disability varies across the United States:

Alabama is the state with the highest prevalence, with 28.9% of adults reporting a disability. West Virginia has the next highest rate of disability (28.2% of adults) followed by Oregon (27.1%) and Kentucky (27%).

The state with the lowest rate of disability is New Jersey, where 16.2% of adults are disabled, followed by Minnesota (17%) and North Dakota (17.1%).

Fortunately, to combat this prevalence of disability, the government has expanded its efforts to accommodate disabled Americans. Outside of the benefits and assistance made available by the Social Security Administration and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the ABLE Act (Achieving a Better Life Experience Act) was also signed into law last year by President Obama. The act allows disabled Americans to open tax-free savings accounts where they can save up to $100,000 without losing their eligibility for Social Security assistance and other government programs.

Although this was a huge step forward in supporting people with disabilities, America still has a long way to go. Next on the agenda is to tackle the massive stigma against mental, physical and emotional disability that still affects over 53 million Americans today.

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