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How Disability Data are Collected from The American Community Survey

Disability data come from the American Community Survey (ACS), the Survey of Income and Program Participation (SIPP), and the Current Population Survey (CPS).  All three surveys ask about six disability types: hearing difficulty, vision difficulty, cognitive difficulty, ambulatory difficulty, self-care difficulty, and independent living difficulty.   Respondents who report anyone of the six disability types are considered to have a disability. 

Each survey has unique advantages.  The ACS has the ability to estimate disability for smaller subgroups of the population.  The CPS Annual Social and Economic Supplement (CPS ASEC) has additional questions on work disability.  The Social Security Administration Supplement to the SIPP has information on other types of disability.  The following describes how disability is defined and collected in the ACS.

The American Community Survey (ACS)

History

The ACS began in the early 1990’s as a vision for continuous measurement of the U.S. population and to reduce the scope, cost, and complexity of the decennial census. The ACS would replace the Census “long-form” (sample survey) and allow the decennial count to focus on “a basic headcount and minimal demographic data”. This vision became a reality with the 2010 Census.

During the late 1990’s, the ACS tested questionnaires and operations at test sites across the United States. In 1999, the ACS adopted the disability questions being developed for the Census 2000 sample survey. Those questions were modified slightly in 2003 to address an issue with the skip pattern, but otherwise attempted to capture the same population:

  • Sensory Disability  Conditions that include blindness, deafness, or a severe vision or hearing impairment.

  • Physical Disability  Conditions that substantially limit one or more basic physical activities such as walking, climbing stairs, reaching, lifting, or carrying.

  • Mental Disability  Because of a physical, mental, or emotional condition lasting 6 months or more, the person has difficulty learning, remembering or concentrating.

  • Self-care Disability  Because of a physical, mental, or emotional condition lasting 6 months or more, the person has difficulty dressing, bathing, or getting around inside the home.

  • Go-outside-home Disability  Because of a physical, mental, or emotional condition lasting 6 months or more, the person has difficulty going outside the home alone to shop or visit a doctor's office.

  • Employment Disability  Because of a physical, mental, or emotional condition lasting 6 months or more, the person has difficulty working at a job or business.

The ACS went into full production in 2005, sampling 250,000 households per month and producing estimates for geographies with populations of 65,000 or greater.

In 2006, the group quarters sample was added, and in 2007, the operations were expanded to include Puerto Rico.

Questionnaire Change

Shortly after the 2000 Census, there was a growing consensus that the ACS questions on disability did not coincide with recent models of disability. The questions focused on the presence of specific conditions, rather than the impact those conditions might have on basic functioning. An interagency group was formed to develop a new set of questions.

In 2006, the Census Bureau fielded a Content Test to assess new and modified content for the ACS questionnaire. The new disability questions were tested against the existing set of questions. The evaluation of the 2006 Content Test disability data can be found in Evaluation Report Covering Disability.

The new questions were introduced in 2008, along with new questions on Health Insurance, Marital History, and Veterans’ Service-connected Disability Ratings.

Because of the changes to the questions, the new ACS disability questions should not be compared to the previous ACS disability questions or the Census 2000 disability data.

Current

The questions introduced in 2008 remain the same questions found in the current ACS questionnaires. They cover six disability types (and their PUMS variable):

  • Hearing difficulty  deaf or having serious difficulty hearing (DEAR).

  • Vision difficulty  blind or having serious difficulty seeing, even when wearing glasses (DEYE).

  • Cognitive difficulty  Because of a physical, mental, or emotional problem, having difficulty remembering, concentrating, or making decisions (DREM).

  • Ambulatory difficulty  Having serious difficulty walking or climbing stairs (DPHY).

  • Self-care difficulty  Having difficulty bathing or dressing (DDRS).

  • Independent living difficulty  Because of a physical, mental, or emotional problem, having difficulty doing errands alone such as visiting a doctor’s office or shopping (DOUT).

Respondents who report anyone of the six disability types are considered to have a disability.

The Census Bureau pools together 12-months of data collection to produce annual estimates for geographies with populations of 65,000 or more. With 36-month of data collection, a 3-year estimate is produces for geographies with 20,000 or more through 2013. Beginning in 2014, a subset of estimates are available from the 1-year supplemental data products for geographies with 20,000 or more. In 2013, the first 5-year estimates (pooling 60 months of data collection) on the disability status of individuals were produced for all geographies including Census tracts and block groups. For more information on ACS products, see ACS Data Releases.

There are also several other Federal data sources that report on characteristics of people with disabilities. For more information see:

Information on employment and other labor force characteristics

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)/National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS)

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