Trends in the employment of disabled people in Britain

Authors: Biegel, D. E., Beimers, D., Stevenson, L. D., Ronis, R., & Boyle, P.
Year Published 2011
Publication Institute for Social and Economic Research, University of Essex
Volume 3
Number 1
Pages 1-55
Publisher Institute for Social and Economic Research, University of Essex

The number of people claiming incapacity benefits increased rapidly to the mid 1990s, and has hardly reduced since then. This paper uses survey data to plot trends over time in the prevalence of disability, and in the employment rates of disabled people, in a way which is independent of, but comparable with, benefit statistics. The research is mainly based on General Household Survey data across the period 1974 to 2005. Much of the analysis is based on a loose definition of disability, but this is effectively complemented by more detailed data on health conditions available in some GHS years.


Employment trends in the UK over three decades raise important questions about the relationship between disability and employment. The main aim of this paper is to use population survey data to unpack the trends in disability and employment, rather than focus on the published benefit statistics. With regard to intervention, one area was examined was the effect of changes in Social Security Disability policies on employment trends.


The General Household Survey (GHS) is a continuous multipurpose survey of large random samples of households across Great Britain.1 The survey has been conducted, using a new sample each time, every year since 1973, with the exception of 1997 and 1999. The latest year available when the data were downloaded for this analysis related to 2005. In practice the 1973 survey did not have full data on economic activities, and the 1977 and 1978 surveys did not carry the standard question on limiting long-standing illness. These three annual surveys were therefore dropped from the analysis. The database therefore provides 28 annual observations, over a 32 year period.


The analysis in this paper is based on adults aged 20 to 59.

Data Collection

Each of the 28 annual GHSs included in the analysis covers between 10,000 and 16,000 men and women within this age range, with an overall total of 360,673 respondents. Where results are shown for a series of years combined, each annual survey has been given a weight based on the number of adults in the population in the years in question, controlling for age and sex.


There was no control or comparison condition.


The administrative statistics measure the combined outcome of three sets of processes: the prevalence of disability; the effect of disability on employment rates; the number of non-working disabled people who are eligible for, and claim, earnings replacement benefits on grounds of "incapacity". In practice the prevalence estimate (based on the LLI definition) rose gradually between the mid-1970s and the mid-1990s, before falling gradually over the following ten years. It is possible to interpret this as a steady rise followed by an abrupt reversal; or alternatively as a slowly evolving change in trend.
The extent of employment disadvantage faced by disabled people ‚the employment penalty ‚followed a different pattern. It rose very slowly at first, increased rapidly between 1987 and 2000, and then steadied (Figure I). There were no observable and definitive effects of policy changes and employment.


This analysis of the trends over three decades has tended to undermine some of the hypotheses frequently put forward to explain the experience of disabled people:
- there is little sign that most of the changes observed over the period have mainly been associated with minor sets of impairments;
- there is little sign that disabled people are especially sensitive to the ups and downs of the business cycle;
- although there was a substantial shift in the ratio of disability-disadvantage (as estimated by the survey) to incapacity-related benefit payments (reported by the DWP) up to about 1990, there is little sign that this ratio was influenced by major changes in the rules governing eligibility for benefits.

Disabilities No specific disability
Populations Male & Female
Outcomes Employment acquisition | Full-time employment | Part-time employment | Self-employment
Research Design Observational
Peer Reviewed Yes