A survey of rheumatic disablement in the population has enabled the comparative impact of self reported causes of disability to be studied. One in three households in Calderdale, West Yorkshire, United Kingdom was screened in 1986 with a postal questionnaire (87% response rate), followed by in depth interviews with a sample of subjects reporting disability in conjunction with a rheumatic disorder (608 interviews). Severity of disablement was assessed using the physical independence handicap classification. The estimated prevalence of disability in conjunction with reported rheumatic disorders is 82/1000 population aged at least 16 years (95% confidence interval (CI) 77 to 87). Arthritis (mainly osteoarthritis) is the most commonly reported cause (47/1000 population; 95% CI 43 to 51), followed by back or neck disorders (25/1000; 95% CI 23 to 28), soft tissue disorders (18/1000; 95% CI 15 to 20), and rheumatoid arthritis (RA) (4/1000; 95% CI 3 to 5). A total of 30% reported more than one category of rheumatic disorder (mean number 1.3) and 63% reported non-rheumatic comorbidity. Current joint symptoms were reported by 98%, current antirheumatic drugs (including analgesics) by 70%, and severe pain by 62%. Overall 82% of subjects had seen their general practitioner in the past year, and 71% reported having attended an outpatient clinic; 26% reported current outpatient clinic attendance, and 15% a hospital inpatient stay during the previous year. Forty six per cent reported some dependence, with 12% reporting being dependent on a daily basis. Rheumatoid arthritis was the most disabling disorder with 73% dependent. Taking into account prevalence, osteoarthritis and back disorders are the most, and RA the least, common causes of dependence and incapacitating pain in the population. This challenges stereotypes and raises questions about the organisation and priorities for specialist services and for research.