Disability and Social Inclusion in Ireland

By Brenda Gannon and Brian Nolan, ESRI

A study funded by the Equality Authority and the National Disability Authority

People with disabilities face many barriers to full participation in Irish society. This research looked at key aspects of participation – education, earnings, poverty and social life - to identify how the experience of people with a long-term disability or illness differs from that of other people.


On almost all the measures studied, people with chronic illness or disability fare worse than others in their own age group, and this reflects the degree to which they are hampered in their daily lives by their illness or disability. 


People with chronic illness or disability have substantially lower levels of educational qualifications than the others in their own age group. These disparities are stronger among younger people, and are stronger where disability restricts daily life.

For people with a chronic illness or disability:

·          Those aged 25-34 are four times more likely than others to have no qualifications beyond primary level, and only half as likely to reach third level;

·          Those aged 55-64 are just under 40% more likely to have no qualifications beyond primary level and about 40% less likely to have reached third level.

The relationship between disability and education is complex. Those whose disability or illness dated from before the age of 25 got a poorer education; but so also, to a lesser degree, did people whose illness or disability was acquired as an adult. This may be due to background factors, e.g. social class, which affect both education levels and health or disability risk. People with lower education may also be at higher risk of illness or disability, for example by working in more dangerous jobs. 

However, even taking this into account, hampering disabilities acquired early in life have a substantial impact on the education level achieved.


At first sight, the hourly earnings of men with hampering disabilities are similar to those of other men, when differences in work experience and education are taken into account

However, work experience (see companion study Disability and Labour Force Participation, Equality Authority, 2004) and education are significantly lower for those with a chronic illness or disability, so disability results in lowered earnings via those channels

Only a minority of people with a chronic illness or disability are in work. Those who make it to a job may have other unmeasured characteristics, such as extra drive or determination, which may also impact on their earnings.   When this is taken into account chronic illness or disability is associated with significantly lower hourly earnings.

Lower average hours of work also translate into lower weekly earnings for people with disabilities or chronic illnesses.


·          People with chronic illness or disability are more than twice as likely to be at risk of poverty, and more than twice as likely to be poor, using official measures of poverty. At risk of poverty means incomes below a household income threshold set as a proportion of the average (60% of the median) and adjusted for family size. For 2003 this threshold was €164 for an individual and €381 for a couple with two children. Consistent poverty means being both below an official income threshold and also doing without basics for lack of money;

·          Between 1994 and 2001 the proportion of adults with chronic illness or disability who were at risk of poverty rose sharply from 21% to 38% while remaining stable at 17% for other adults;

·          Between 1994 and 2001 there was a marginal decline in consistent poverty for people with a chronic illness or disability, whereas for other adults this rate fell substantially;

·          When other factors are controlled for statistically, people severely hampered by illness or disability have a consistent poverty rate which is five times that of people with no disability. Their predicted risk of poverty is between 11 and 22 percentage points higher than other adults;

·          Poverty among this group is closely associated with social welfare dependence and with having no-one in the household at work. Among ill or disabled people at risk of poverty, only 10% of household income came from paid work;

Social participation

People with a chronic illness or disability are less likely to be in a club or an association; to talk to their neighbours most days; to meet friends or relatives most days; or to have a social afternoon or evening out.

Again, the degree of restriction associated with the illness or disability has most impact on the different measures of social participation. Only 45% of those severely hampered have had an evening out in the last fortnight compared with 85% of those with no disability. Adjusting for other differences, including gender, age and education, severely hampering disability contributes 24 percentage points to this difference in social participation.

Likewise, taking other factors into account, severely hampering disability reduces membership of clubs by 20 percentage points relative to non-disabled people; reduces the rate of meeting people regularly, by 7 percentage points; and reduces the incidence of talking to the neighbours by 15 percentage points.

People hampered to some extent also had more restricted social lives, although to a lesser degree than the severely hampered group. Fewer had a social outing, and fewer were members of clubs, but there was little difference in terms of meeting friends or neighbours from people without a disability.

People whose disability or illness did not restrict daily activities had fewer social outings, but otherwise appeared no different in terms of social participation to the non-disabled population

Data and methods

The research undertook new statistical analysis of data that had been collected in two household surveys – the Living in Ireland Survey of 2001 (covering over 9,000 adults aged 16 or over), and the Quarterly National Household Survey’s Disability Module of 2002 (about 100,000 adults aged 15-64). The group studied were those who identified themselves as having a chronic or long-standing illness or disability. Statistical analysis identified the separate influences of age, gender, education, and the degree to which people were hampered in their daily lives (Living in Ireland Survey) or restricted in the kind or amount of work they could do (QNHS), to identify whether differences found reflected disability or other background factors.

Further information

Copies of the full study Disability and Social Inclusion in Ireland (2005) by Brenda Gannon and Brian Nolan are available from the Equality Authority 01-4173333 or online at www.equality.ie, or from the National Disability Authority (01) 6080400 and online at www.nda.ie