Institute on Disability

Searching for disability in electronic databases of published literature

Emily S. Walsh
Jana J. Peterson
Dolores Z. Judkins
The Expert Panel on Disability and Health Disparities (C. Drum, G. Fujiura, G. Krahn, & L. Iezzoni)


As researchers in disability and health conduct systematic reviews with greater frequency, the definition of disability used in these reviews gains importance. Translating a comprehensive conceptual definition of “disability” into an operational definition that utilizes electronic databases in the health sciences is a difficult step necessary for performing systematic literature reviews in the field. Consistency of definition across studies will help build a body of evidence that is comparable and amenable to synthesis. To illustrate a process for operationalizing the World Health Organization's International Classification of Disability, Functioning, and Health concept of disability for MEDLINE, PsycINFO, and CINAHL databases. We created an electronic search strategy in conjunction with a reference librarian and an expert panel. Quality control steps included comparison of search results to results of a search for a specific disabling condition and to articles nominated by the expert panel. The complete search strategy is presented. Results of the quality control steps indicated that our strategy was sufficiently sensitive and specific. Our search strategy will be valuable to researchers conducting literature reviews on broad populations with disabilities.