Disability Demographics and Definitions

In 2010, approximately 57 million people – nearly 20 percent of the United States population – were living with some type of disability according the U.S. Census Bureau. Of those, more than 38 million had a severe disability.[1] This means that one in five people in the United States is living with some type of disability. [2]

It is important to remember that each person with a disability is a unique individual who is someone’s spouse, child, brother or sister; they are coworkers and clients, business owners and neighbors, students and classmates.

A disability can be physical, intellectual or cognitive, emotional or psychiatric. Disabilities can range dramatically in severity and how they affect each individual’s independence. Disabilities can be visible or obvious (e.g., blindness, a speech or communication challenge, cerebral palsy, Down Syndrome, or mobility-related). They also can be invisible (e.g., autism spectrum disorder, hearing loss, developmental disability, mental health or psychiatric disorder, or traumatic brain injury).

Children with Disabilities

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about one in six children had a developmental disability in 2006-2008, ranging from mild disabilities (e.g., speech and language impairments) to serious developmental disabilities (e.g., autism, cerebral palsy). The prevalence of developmental disabilities among children is increasing, jumping more than 17% from 1997 to 2008. This is due, in part, to an increased number of children being diagnosed with autism. In 2012, the CDC reported that 1 in 88 children were diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder.[3]

Unfortunately, despite the prevalence of disabilities in the population, individuals with disabilities are chronically under-served by the nation’s justice system.


Definition of Disability

There are approximately 57 million people in the United States who are living with one or more disabilities. The Americans with Disabilities Act defines an individual with a disability as: A person who has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities, a person who has a history or record of such an impairment, or a person who is perceived by others as having such an impairment.


Definition of Developmental Disability

Over 6 million individuals in the United States have developmental disabilities. The Developmental Disabilities Assistance and Bill of Rights Act defines a developmental disability as a severe, chronic disability of an individual that— is attributable to a mental or physical impairment or combination of mental and physical impairments; is manifested before the individual attains age 22; is likely to continue indefinitely; results in substantial functional limitations in 3 or more of the following areas of major life activity: Self-care, receptive and expressive language. Learning, mobility, self-direction, capacity for independent living, economic self-sufficiency; reflects the individual’s need for a combination and sequence of special, interdisciplinary, or generic services, individualized supports, or other forms of assistance that are of lifelong or extended duration and are individually planned and coordinated. An individual from birth to age 9, inclusive, who has a substantial developmental delay or specific congenital or acquired condition, may be considered to have a developmental disability without meeting 3 or more of the criteria described [above] if the individual, without services and supports, has a high probability of meeting those criteria later in life.[4]


  1. ^Brault, Matthew W., “Americans With Disabilities: 2010,” Current Population Reports, P70-131, U.S. Census Bureau, Washington, DC, 2012. http://www.census.gov/prod/2012pubs/p70-131.pdf
  2. ^“Definition of Disability”: 42 U.S.C. § 12102(1).
  3. ^http://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/autism/data.html
  4. ^42 U.S.C. § 15002(8).