Which countries in Europe pose the biggest challenges to living and working with a disability?

Disability Copyright Canva
Copyright Canva
By Servet Yanatma
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People with no disability are less likely to be at risk of poverty than those with a disability, according to data from 34 European countries.


There are around 101 million people with some form of disability living in the European Union. 

This equates to 27 per cent of the EU population over the age of 16, corresponding to slightly over one in four adults. They face several inequalities, which make their lives difficult.

The EU Commission calls for decent standards of living for all persons with disabilities. This includes independent living, quality social and employment services, accessible and inclusive housing, adequate social protection, participation in lifelong learning, and a strengthened social economy.

There might be several aspects to look at in comparing the status of disabled people across Europe. Socioeconomic differences between people with and without disability are particularly significant. 

Several indicators exhibit the considerable gap against people with disabilities. We look at these socioeconomic gaps.

What counts as a disability?

Disability mainly refers to limitations people may have when doing certain activities because of health problems for at least the past six months, according to the Eurostat. People with a disability are persons who have at least one basic activity difficulty, such as seeing, hearing, walking, remembering, and so on.

The prevalence of disability across Europe

The share of people with some form of disability considerably varies in the EU, ranging from 14.6 per cent in Bulgaria 38.4 per cent in Latvia in 2022, according to Eurostat.

According to the data, disability is categorised into two groups: "some limitation" and "severe limitation". 

In the EU, of people who were aged 16 years and over, 19.8 per cent reported some limitation while 7.2 per cent said that they had a severe limitation in their usual activities due to health problems.

In 2022, the share of people with severe disability ranged from 2.7 per cent in Bulgaria to 10.3 per cent in Estonia. 

This was higher than the EU average in France and Germany at almost 10 percent. In the UK, 11.5 per cent also reported that they had severe disability in 2018.

Why does the share of people with disabilities differ significantly across Europe?

The figures are derived from self-reported data so they are, to a certain extent, affected by respondents' subjective perception as well as by their social and cultural background. Thus, the subjective nature is a significant explainer of this difference.

However, these "statistics are considered to be relevant and reliable estimators of the health status of populations," Eurostat underlined. 

These statistics are very valuable for trend analyses and for measuring socioeconomic disparities between people with disabilities and no activity limitation.

Socioeconomic gap between people with or without a disability matters

Being at the risk of poverty is one of the important socioeconomic gaps between people with disability and those without activity limitation.

The share of people with a disability who were at the risk of poverty in the EU ranged from 13.6 per cent Slovakia to 44.4 per cent in Estonia. 

This figure was mostly low in the Nordic countries (except Sweden) while it was higher in Baltic countries.

As the risk of poverty in the EU substantially differs, comparing the gap between disabled and non-disabled people in each country provides more meaningful insights.


Disabled people are at more risk of poverty

People with no disability are less likely to be at risk of poverty than those with a disability.

The trend was detected in all 34 European countries (27 EU members, 5 candidates, and 2 European Free Trade Association–EFTA, members) where data was available.

Of the EU population with a disability, 20.5 per cent was at risk of poverty, compared with 14.5 per cent among people with no limitations.

In absolute terms, this difference was smallest in Italy and Greece (1 and 2 percentage points – pp, respectively) among the EU members. Estonia (26.5 pp) had the widest gaps, followed by Lithuania (21.4 pp), Croatia (20.3 pp) and Latvia (19.5 pp).

Baltic countries, Croatia and Bulgaria had the highest gap

The absolute gap between people with or without a disability was over 10 pp in thirteen EU countries, demonstrating how much the disabled people were disadvantaged there.


This gap was highest in the Baltic countries, as well as in Croatia and Bulgaria. Remarkably, it was also significantly high in the Netherlands, Belgium, and Sweden where the Social Justice Index of Bertelsmann Stiftung was better than many countries.

Italy and Greece are the best countries with lower differences

Looking at the relative differences (ratio of disabled to non-disabled people), Italy and Greece recorded the smallest differences. The share of people at risk of poverty was only 1.1 times as high for people with a disability than for people without.

The largest relative difference was recorded in Croatia (2.6 times), followed by Estonia and Ireland (both 2.5 times).

This relative difference was over 2 times in eleven EU countries, suggesting how disabled people are economically more vulnerable than those without disability.

Unemployment is higher among disabled people

In 2022, the average unemployment rate in the EU was 9.4 percent among people with disability compared with 6.1 per cent among non-disabled people. Except for Czechia, unemployment rate was higher in all EU countries among disabled people.


The relative difference was over 2.5 in Hungary, Slovenia, and Lithuania. That means the unemployment rate was more than 2.5 times as high for people with a disability than for people without in these countries.

The gap is clearer in employment

Employment rate is also a key indicator of socioeconomic gap between disabled and non-disabled people. 

In 2022, the disability employment gap was 21.4 pp in the EU, according to a European Trade Union Institute (ETUI) report authored by Angelina Atanasova, a researcher at the European Social Observatory in Brussels. 

It varied from 8.5 pp in Luxembourg to 37 pp in Ireland.

The disability employment gap was over 30 pp in nine EU countries, corresponding to one in three. At the top, Ireland was followed by Croatia (36 pp), Belgium (35.3 pp) and Lithuania (35 pp).


At the bottom, Luxembourg was followed by Denmark (9.9 pp), Portugal (13.1 pp), Italy (14 pp) and Spain (14.6 pp).

Participation in employment is essential if people with disabilities are to achieve economic autonomy and social inclusion.
Angelina Atanasova
Researcher, European Social Observatory

While the disability employment gap was higher than the EU in Germany (24 pp), it was slightly lower in France (20.8).

What might be the possible reasons behind these considerable gaps across the EU countries? 

The gap "mainly reflects differences in institutional factors (such as the implementation of national anti-discrimination laws, welfare state regimes and specific social assistance policies)," Atanasova wrote in her ETUI report.

No significant improvement in employment

The disability employment gap has not changed much in the EU in the last nine years. It did not significantly improve between 2014 and 2022.


The gap reached the lowest level of 21.4 pp in 2022, compared to 22.7 pp in 2014.

This data exhibits that people with disabilities are persistently disadvantaged in the labour market compared with non-disabled people.

"Participation in employment is essential if people with disabilities are to achieve economic autonomy and social inclusion," Atanasova wrote.

Impact of social transfers is huge to reduce risk of poverty

Eurostat figures show that the impact of social transfers on the at-risk-of-poverty rate is huge. 

In 2022, 67.1 per cent of the EU population with a disability would have been at the risk of poverty, but after taking account of social transfers (such as benefits, allowances and pensions) the share was 20.5 per cent.


Disability benefits higher in Nordic countries

Some countries allocate more resources for disabled people in Europe while the share of disability benefits within the total expenditure on social protection is significantly low.

In 2021, the average share of disability benefits within the total expenditure on social protection benefits was 6.9 per cent in the EU. 

When some EFTA and candidate countries were included, Denmark recorded the highest share at 16.8 per cent followed by Norway (15.8), Iceland (14.9) and Luxembourg (11.4).

Disabled people in Turkey had the lowest share of benefits at only 3.1 per cent, followed by Malta (3.4), Cyprus (3.4), and Greece (3.9)

This share was higher in the Nordic countries. Among the EU's "Big Four," the share was slightly higher in Germany than the EU whereas France, Italy, and Spain reported lower benefit shares.


Looking at the nominal values, the gap becomes wider. In 2021, disability benefits per person ranged from €27 in Turkey to €3,162 in Norway. The EU average was €644. T

hese figures reflect disability benefits within the total expenditure on social protection benefits. The EU member states spent approximately €287.8 billion on disability benefits.

The Nordic countries had the highest disability benefits per person as they did in the share of disability benefits.

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