Assessing the Need for a National Disability Survey: Final Report. E. Enhance Disability-Related Content in Existing Surveys


A key issue is that many surveys have very limited and--at the extreme--no questions related to disability. In our correspondences with the staff of agencies that conduct research related to people with disabilities, one respondent suggested that disability be included in all surveys as a basic demographic characteristic, such as gender or race.

Inclusion of a basic disability variable in all surveys would open up a variety of topics to research on people with disabilities. For example, adding a concrete measure of disability to the CE would allow for studies comparing the spending habits of people with and without disabilities. The inclusion of disability questions in the 2009 AHS has added a new opportunity to use these data for disability research. As noted in Stapleton et al. (2009a), “Adding disability measures to surveys with poor or nonexistent measures is the most important way that disability-relevant content in existing national surveys can be improved.”

As mentioned previously, among surveys that already include questions to identify people with disabilities, many lack details on the severity of the disability or diversity of conditions. Federal and state agency staff providing input to this study requested that information on disability severity, longevity, onset, and causes be included in more surveys. More information on people with disabilities could also be included by restructuring certain questions. Some surveys inquire about a respondent’s ability to work and include disability only as a response option for a question about why the individual is not working. Including a separate work-limitation question, with inability to work as a response option, would increase the validity and usefulness of the measure. This restructuring could be applied to any question for which disability appears as one of many response options. Researchers would prefer use of a larger stand-alone battery of disability questions, but that would impose a greater burden on the respondents.

Inclusion of disability-related content, such as service use or barriers to independent living, is another important way to enhance existing surveys. People with disabilities have many unique needs and circumstances that might not be captured by standard questions targeted to people without disabilities. Questions related to work accommodations, accessible public transportation, assistive technology, disability-related costs, and the emotional and social impacts of disability are absent from most existing surveys but would improve the usefulness of surveys for studying disability issues. For example, including content related to vocational rehabilitation on all educational surveys would be useful to answering a question posed by one government agency: “What effect has rehabilitation had on drop-out and graduation rates?” Numerous examples of disability-related content that staff of federal and state agencies find are inadequate in existing surveys were noted in Chapter II (Section C.5).

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