Frequently asked questions about disability data

How are people with disabilities identified in the CPS?

The CPS uses a set of six questions to identify persons with disabilities. A response of “yes” to any one of the questions indicates that the person in question has a disability. The disability questions appear in the CPS in the following format:

    This month we want to learn about people who have physical, mental, or emotional conditions that cause serious difficulty with their daily activities. Please answer for household members who are 15 years old or over.

    Is anyone deaf or does anyone have serious difficulty hearing?

    Is anyone blind or does anyone have serious difficulty seeing even when wearing glasses?

    Because of a physical, mental, or emotional condition, does anyone have serious difficulty concentrating, remembering, or making decisions?

    Does anyone have serious difficulty walking or climbing stairs?

    Does anyone have difficulty dressing or bathing?

    Because of a physical, mental, or emotional condition, does anyone have difficulty doing errands alone such as visiting a doctor’s office or shopping?

Labor force measures from the CPS are tabulated for persons age 16 and older.

Are the questions asked about everyone in each household every month?

No. The CPS questions for identifying individuals with disabilities are only asked of household members who are age 15 and older. (Labor force measures from the CPS are tabulated for persons age 16 and older.) Each of the questions ask the respondent whether anyone in the household has the condition described, and if the respondent replies “yes,” they are then asked to identify everyone in the household who has the condition. The CPS is administered to a household for 4 months in a row, followed by 8 months in which the household is not part of the survey, and then the household is again included in the survey for another 4 months. Those households that are in the survey for the first time, or for the first time after the 8-month break, are asked the disability questions. Replacement households and new household members are also asked the disability questions. During months that the questions are not asked, the responses collected earlier are retained to establish disability status in the same manner used for other demographic questions (about race, sex, etc.).

How were the new CPS questions on disability developed?

The disability questions used in the CPS were initially developed by the U.S. Census Bureau for use in the American Community Survey (ACS). The ACS questions were modified slightly so that they could be incorporated into the CPS questionnaire. Documentation that describes the development of the questions is available from the Census Bureau's 2006 ACS Content Test Report Series, report P.4 (PDF).

Does each of the questions identify a group with a specific disability?

The set of six questions was added to the CPS in order to satisfy the requirement specified in Executive Order 13078 to measure the employment status of persons with disabilities in aggregate on a timely basis. The Executive Order did not require the identification or measurement of specific disabilities. Extensive research conducted as part of the effort to include disability questions in the CPS demonstrated that it is very difficult to accurately measure all persons with disabilities using only a few questions. In like manner, research has also shown that it would be difficult to accurately identify persons with a specific type of disability using only one question. For example, questions tested during the research process that were designed to elicit positive responses from persons with one type of disability were equally likely to identify persons with other disabilities as well. (Cognitive reports that show such results are available from the BLS upon request, and from the Census Bureau's 2006 ACS Content Test Report Series, report P.4 (PDF).) Given this research and the relatively small sample size of the CPS, data users are advised to avoid using the CPS for the purpose of identifying persons with specific disabilities.

Are the CPS data comparable to data collected in other surveys?

Disability data from the CPS cannot be directly compared with data from other surveys. The disability questions in the CPS were originally developed for use in the American Community Survey (ACS). ACS disability data from 2008 forward were collected using these questions. Although data users may wish to compare the estimates from the CPS to those from the ACS or other surveys that include disability questions, for several reasons it is unlikely that data from these surveys will yield identical estimates as to the size or other characteristics of the disability population. For example, the scope of the CPS is more restrictive; the population covered by the CPS is confined to the civilian noninstitutional working-age population. There are further differences as well, all of which need to be accounted for in any attempt to compare data from two different surveys. These include the mode of survey collection, the context of the survey, the questions that are used in each survey, and the population of interest.

Mode of survey collection. The choice of how to physically administer a survey is referred to as the mode of the survey. Variations in the mode of conducting a survey include forms that arrive in the mail to be filled out and returned, telephone interviews, personal interviews, and answering questions on a website, among others. Different modes of data collection can result in different responses to the very same question.

Context of the survey. The context of the survey also has been found to influence the respondents’ understanding of questions. Respondents are much more likely to say yes to disability questions that are within health-related surveys than when those same questions are included in a labor force survey.

Questions used in the survey. The questions used to define who has a disability are not always specified when disability data are published, although surveys often use quite different questions for the purpose. The group of questions used can greatly affect the findings of any survey. Additionally, question wording affects the results obtained. Some surveys may use similar questions, but even slight variations in wording or question sequence can yield different results.

Population of interest. The population that the survey is designed to focus on must be clearly defined in order to understand a survey’s data, or to compare data from multiple sources. For example, the population of interest for the CPS is the civilian noninstitutional population age 16 and over. This includes persons 16 years of age and older residing in the 50 States and the District of Columbia who are not in institutions (such as prisons, long-term care hospitals, and nursing homes), and who are not on active duty in the Armed Forces. Comparison of CPS data to data from a survey using a different population of interest, for example one that includes persons residing in institutions, would be problematic.

Does Social Security disability status affect the CPS measure?

No. Social Security disability status is unrelated to the CPS measure of disability. Also, the CPS disability measure has no bearing on the determination of Social Security disability status. CPS data are confidential and are collected for statistical purposes only. The Social Security Administration uses a completely independent process to determine disability status and this status, including the determination of eligibility for benefits, is entirely unrelated to the CPS disability measure.

Do the CPS data measure the total size of the disability population?

The CPS will not provide a measure of the total size of the disability population. The CPS estimates are limited to the civilian noninstitutional population 16 years and older. Thus, it does not include persons who live in institutions—such as prisons, long-term care hospitals, and nursing homes—or those who are on active duty in the Armed Forces. Health-focused surveys typically use dozens of questions to identify all persons with disabilities. It is likely that the relatively small number of disability-related questions in the CPS could fail to identify some people with disabilities.

Why does the number of people with disabilities as measured in the CPS show some variability?

Some of the variability is due to random sampling error associated with any sample survey like the CPS. In addition, unlike most other CPS data, the estimates of the population of persons with a disability are not controlled to independent population totals because such data are not currently available. Without controls, estimates are more apt to vary in unpredictable ways from one month to the next. Additionally, the labor force estimates for persons with disabilities have not been seasonally adjusted due to the fact that these data have been collected for a few months only. Typically, several years worth of monthly estimates are required before seasonally adjusted estimates can be produced.

Are the CPS data on persons with disabilities available cross-tabulated by other characteristics?

Yes. The CPS provides comprehensive information on the demographic and economic characteristics of the civilian noninstitutional population 16 years and older. Unpublished detailed tables are available upon request that provide information on the labor force, employment, and unemployment of persons with disabilities by a number of characteristics such as age, sex, race, marital status, industry, and occupation.

Are the CPS disability data available on a state or local basis?

No. Because of the relatively small sample size in most states, BLS does not currently plan to issue subnational disability estimates.

Are disability data available for earlier months?

Yes. Historical data series are available back to June 2008, the first month disability questions were added to the CPS. Users might note that the June-September 2008 data were collected in a different manner than the later data, which may have affected the comparability of the data. See CPS disability data.

Are the disability data available on CPS public use microdata files?

Yes. Disability microdata from the CPS are available from the U.S. Census Bureau. Beginning with data for 2009, disability status variables are part of the basic monthly data files at The 2008 disability data are in a separate extract file at As with all CPS microdata, personally identifiable information has been removed.


Last Modified Date: November 20, 2012