August 10, 2016 | News

India: 26.8 million people with disabilities

About one billion people worldwide and 27 million people in India have disabilities. MPIDR researchers and colleagues in India found out that large disparities are hidden behind the large number for India, with disability prevalence most pronounced in disadvantaged regions and disadvantaged socioeconomic groups.

WHO estimates suggest that more than a billion people worldwide have disabilities. It is largely unknown, however, how many there are exactly, which populations are most affected, and where the prevalence of people with disabilities is markedly high or markedly low. This is mainly due to a lack of data collection in most countries.

"We believe that India has large regional and socioeconomic differences in the distribution of disability in the population", says Nandita Saikia, the main author of the study, which was published in the online journal PLOS ONE. "Knowing where a lot of people with disabilities are living and which population groups have higher concentrations of people with disabilities is important, for example to design public health programs", the researcher explains.

To make this possible, Nandita Saikia, who until recently was a Max Planck Research Fellow at the MPIDR and who is an assistant professor at the Centre for the Study of Regional Development at the Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, together with her colleague Jayanta Kumar Bora of the Public Health Foundation of India and MPIDR-researchers Vladimir Shkolnikov and Domantas Jasilionis analyzed data from a large population census conducted in India in 2011. The Census of India truly was a project of mammoth proportions: It involved interviewing every household in nearly 8,000 cities and nearly 650,000 villages. People in the households were asked questions about disability in vision, hearing, and in movement, among other things. Because the census does not provide direct information about household income, the researchers used a couple of alternative variables to establish a link between socioeconomic status and disability prevalence, such as information on the literacy status of the respondents or data on access to safe drinking water.

The researchers found out that around 26.8 million people with disabilities are living in India, 70 percent of them live in rural areas. Disability is more common among younger men than it is among younger women. And the absolute number of men with disabilities is higher than that of women with disabilities, but the gender gap closes and even reverses at older ages. Poorer and socially excluded populations, such as members of scheduled castes and scheduled tribes, are significantly more likely to have disabilities. But the researchers found the largest differences in the geographical distribution of disability: In the 640 districts looked at, the percentage of people with disabilities varied between one and six percent.

The researchers see the need for politics to take responsible action: "Public health measures need to be taken for regions where many people live with disabilities", says Nandita Saikia. Also, it needs to be taken into account that in some large developing countries, such as India and China, the population is aging – as in the industrialized countries. "Many disabilities are age-related, such as loss in sight and hearing. India will thus face major structural and financial challenges in view of the huge absolute numbers of people who have disabilities and require adequate social care and health care", says the researcher. 

The researchers also see the need for action in the area of data collection: "Census of India used a most narrow ‘medical’ definition of disability. Had Census used WHO's definition of disability, a definition that is internationally comparable, the number of people with disabilities would have been substantially higher. A modification to the definition of disability in Census is essential to correctly evaluate this emerging public health issue”, says Nandita Saikia.

More Information

Original Article:Disability Divides in India: Evidence from the 2011 Census, Nandita Saikia, Jayanta Kumar Bora, Domantas Jasilionis, Vladimir M. Shkolnikov, August 4, 2016, PLOS ONE 


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The Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research (MPIDR) in Rostock is one of the leading demographic research centers in the world. It's part of the Max Planck Society, the internationally renowned German research society.