Trends in Prevalence of Disabilities among Youth

Chronic Conditions

There is a wide variety in chronic conditions and their severity; they can affect a person physically, psychologically, or socially. Not all chronic conditions fall under the definition of a disability that triggers legal supports, but providing supports to youth with chronic conditions and their families can improve health outcomes and help these young people achieve their goals.

Because there is no single definition, estimates of the number of youth with disabilities living in the U.S. vary. The National Survey of Children’s Health identified 1 in 4 children ages 12 to 17 as having special healthcare needs in 2019,1 and the American Community Survey estimates that more than 1.3 million U.S. young people ages 16 to 20 have a disability.2 Many young people have more than one condition: 17 percent of children ages 12 to 17 have two or three chronic conditions and 10 percent have four or more chronic conditions.1

Among children ages zero to 17, adolescents have the highest prevalence of special healthcare needs,3 which likely reflects conditions that develop or are diagnosed in late childhood. Several sources indicate that the prevalence of childhood disabilities has increased in recent decades, although some portion of that trend may be due to improved diagnostic methods and better access to services. In recent decades, trends in prevalence have shifted from predominantly physical conditions to an increased prevalence of developmental and behavioral conditions. In 2019, more than one in four (26.9 percent) adolescents ages 12 to 17 had an mental, emotional, developmental, or behavioral problem.1


1 Child Trends’ analysis of 2019 National Survey of Children’s Health (NSCH) public use file. back to top

2 Erickson, W., Lee, C., & von Schrader, S. (2020). 2018 disability status report: United States. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Yang-Tan Institute on Employment and Disability (YTI). back to top

3 Child and Adolescent Health Measurement Initiative. (2019). National Survey of Children’s Health (NSCH) data query. Available at Accessed on April 17, 2021. back to top