• We're reaching the end of the UK's 2021 Disability History Month (18th November-18th December)

  • Disability History Month aims to promote disabled people's rights and their struggle for equality

  • Counsellor Olga Chernyavska, who specialises in working with disability, shares some statistics about disability in the UK

Whereas some people are disabled from birth, others acquire disability later in life. Some disabilities are easier to identify: individuals may use wheelchairs, walking sticks or the aid of a guide dog. However, disabilities are more widespread than people tend to think because there are conditions, illnesses and injuries that can result in a hidden/invisible disability. They include (but are not limited to) brain injuries, diabetes, heart and lung conditions, mental illnesses, some sensory impairments and chronic pain.

The equality act and the definition of disability

A disability is one of the protected characteristics under the Equality Act 2010, which legally protects people from discrimination in the workplace and in wider society.

The definition of disability for the purposes of the Act is “a physical or mental impairment which has a substantial and long-term adverse effect on a person’s ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities”. A long-term effect means that it had lasted, or being likely to last for at least 12 months, or likely to last for the rest of someone’s life.  

Cancer, multiple sclerosis, HIV and sight impairment (certified by ophthalmologist as severely sight impaired, sight impaired, blind and partially sighted) are automatically considered as a disability.

UK statistics on disability 

Twenty-one per cent (14.1 million) of people in the UK reported a disability in 2018/19, which increased by 19 per cent (11.3 million) from 2008/09. 

According to the 2019/2020 statistics, the first three prevalent impairments in the UK are mobility conditions, linked to stamina/breathing/fatigue and mental health.  

Work-related ill health cases (new or long-standing)

HSE statistics show that 1.6 million workers are injured or made ill by their work in Great Britain.

Prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, work-related stress, anxiety and depression were ranked the highest on the list. Anxiety and depression are the most common mental health problems. If the stress (including work-related stress) is prolonged, it can lead to physical as well as psychological negative impact. The occupations, which had the highest prevalence were:

  • electricity, gas, steam and air conditioning supply
  • public admin/defence
  • human health/social work
  • education

Musculoskeletal disorders (MSD) are the second highest self-reported work-related injuries. The industries with higher than average rates of musculoskeletal disorders are the following:

  • agriculture, forestry and fishing
  • construction
  • human health and social work

MSDs are more common than people might realise and risk of developing them increases with age. MSDs can include pain, stiffness, swelling in ligaments, tendons, bones or muscles.  


Becoming disabled later in life

Anyone can become physically disabled, suddenly through accident or gradually because of illness.

A number of traumatic events (including work-related incidents) can lead to chronic health conditions, resulting in acquired disabilities. Becoming disabled later in life can be overwhelmingly challenging because of the need to adapt to a different life style and its possible restrictions. Those Individuals with physical disabilities may experience profound changes in their physical wellbeing and social lives.

Therefore, a range of emotions and feelings can be triggered, once an individual is faced with an injury or disabling illness. It can include grief due to a loss of health. Additionally, a person could deal with loss of hobbies, plans, hopes, career and relationships. Due to this, strong reactions of shock, anxiety, fear, anger, denial, depression/low mood are also likely to arise. It is essential to allow time to acknowledge and process feelings, so they become less intense.

The adjustment period can be demanding on its own as it requires a person to understand and accept their disability, whilst also adapting to accommodate the changes to their body, learning new skills, concentrating on positives and strengths.


There are some reports that Covid-19 can cause damage to various internal organs but the research is still ongoing, regarding the long-term implications that could result in disabilities because of it.

Covid-19 is already affecting mental health in the general population and frontline workers. The Office of National Statistics found that in early 2021 (27 January to 7 March) 21% adults experienced some form of depression whilst the figure before the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic was 10%.

A recent study found that almost half of NHS staff met thresholds for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, anxiety and problem with alcohol consumption.

Another study found that coronavirus pandemic contributed to health and social care workers becoming at risk of experiencing mental health difficulties, such a higher levels of anxiety and depression.

Olga Chernyavska is a verified welldoing.org online counsellor

Further reading

How writing a film about my invisible disability helped me grieve

Staying fit with a physical disability

Disability and society: how have things changed?