Surge in young people declaring disability in England and Wales

One in seven women in their 20s have been classed as disabled, after the census for England and Wales included mental health in its question about disability for the first time.

The number of girls and young women aged 10 to 19 declaring a disability almost doubled and among those aged 20 to 24 it almost tripled in England to 15%. There were hotspots in Lincoln, Norwich and Brighton, places with large student populations. The increase among young males was smaller but still significant.

In response to the Equality Act 2010, the 2021 census stopped asking about “problems related to old age” as it did in previous decades when it was trying to establish disability rates and started asking about “physical or mental health conditions or illnesses lasting or expected to last 12 months or more”. The census was taken in March 2021, during the coronavirus pandemic when depression rates surged.

The results show the overall disabled population in England and Wales is getting younger.

The new count means 1.2 million people aged 10 to 24 in England and Wales now declare themselves disabled – more than double the number a decade earlier. Wales and the north-east of England, are home to the most disabled people, and London, the fewest.


The disability charity Scope described the census as “historic” and welcomed the recognition of the experiences of disabled people with mental health conditions.

“The lack of understanding about less visible conditions means people face a lot of stigma, discrimination and difficulty getting the right support,” said Craig Moss, research manager. “In a cost of living crisis, having accurate data is vital for government to make sure those in greatest need are getting enough support.”

Mind, the mental health charity, said the figures were “shocking but sadly not surprising” and said the cost of living crisis was taking a toll on young adults with mental health problems.

“Despite the need for support continuing to rise, young people are still left facing an agonising wait in a system that cannot keep up with demand, and the UK government’s response so far has just not been good enough,” said Gemma Byrne, head of health policy and campaigns. “Unless investment in young people’s mental health services is made as a matter of urgency, the UK government is at risk of failing an entire generation.”

The statisticians’ decision to stop asking about old age problems may also explain why the number of older people saying their activities were limited “a lot” by disability fell between 2011 and 2021. There was a sharp fall in the numbers of people over 60 declaring themselves disabled – with 1.1 million fewer people classifying themselves as such. Some of that may be because of disabled people being at greater risk of death during the pandemic, both from Covid and other related causes which triggered excess deaths, the Office for National Statistics said.

“Mental health may have been captured more accurately in the 2021 question, compared with previous years,” said the ONS. “This could have contributed to the increase in disability seen in the younger age groups. Our report into coronavirus and depression in adults found that between January and March 2021, 21% of adults experienced some form of depression, and that this was more than double pre-coronavirus levels.”

The census results also showed that people were twice as likely to be disabled in the most deprived areas of England compared with the least deprived, with around one in four in the poorest locations declaring a disability. The pattern was similar but slightly less pronounced in Wales.

In the most deprived areas, people aged 40-44 were just as likely to be disabled as people aged 70-74 in the richest areas. In Blackpool, a higher proportion of those aged 40 to 44 were disabled than among people aged 70 to 74 in Windsor and Maidenhead.

Hart in rural Hampshire, rated England’s least deprived council area, had the highest proportion of non-disabled people over the age of 60.