Background: a significant minority of older people live in residential care. While disability is often a major contributory factor, it may not be measured or managed adequately by health and social services. At present there is little information comparing levels of disability within nursing homes and the community, and no mechanisms for monitoring changes in this disability ratio longitudinally. Objective: to examine the prevalence of disability among older nursing home residents compared to its prevalence among older people in the community using a census-based approach. Design: nationwide census over one night in 2002. Setting: all homes and dwellings in the Republic of Ireland. Method: disability was measured using a six-item questionnaire embedded in a census form. Prevalence of disability was quantified among the general population and nursing homes residents aged 65 and over. Comparisons were made of sex, and number and type of disabilities between nursing home residents and their age-matched peers living within the community. Results: the results showed a high level of disability within nursing homes with almost 90% of residents having a recorded disability compared with less than 30% of those aged 65 and over, living in the community. Nursing home residents had on average 4.5 disabilities ranging from hearing and visual problems to difficulties remembering and concentrating. Conclusion: there is a very high level of physical, sensory and cognitive disability among nursing home residents. Strategic health and functional questions in national censuses may be helpful in planning appropriate services for older people in residential care, as well as tracking trends in disability.