The Invisibility of Disabled Patients in Healthcare
When observing the inequalities in the medical and healthcare field, systemic barriers like racism, misogyny, and homophobia/transphobia are often addressed in some way. However, ableism and care toward patients with disabilities are often overlooked. Studies have shown that people with disabilities have poorer general health, reduced access to proper health care, and higher chances of taking part in risky activities like smoking and physical inactivity. People with disabilities have a higher chance of contracting preventable health issues that impact their quality of life and health. A disability also can lead to secondary issues like obesity, depression, pain, and tiredness. Health inequalities and the secondary conditions mentioned are often the consequences of inaccessible healthcare facilities and equipment, the inability of physicians to understand the disability of patients, transportation problems, and the lower socioeconomic status of individuals with disabilities.
People with disabilities are stigmatized and looked down upon in society, leading to them often being unfairly treated through unequal access to resources like housing, jobs, and healthcare. Having a balance of not paying so much attention to their disability but also not very little attention can be referred to as disability humility. Recognizing that carefully listening to your patient's concerns and lived experiences of them with a disability instead of coming to your own assumptions is one start to go about treating patients with disabilities. Using language such as “a person with Alzheimer's” instead of “an Alzheimer’s patient” emphasizes the person rather than the disease. Another example would be using more humanizing language such as “using a wheelchair” instead of “restricted to a wheelchair”. There is a neutral connotation with the word “using” compared to “restricted” that characterizes people with disabilities in a better light.
Accessibility through communication is one way to help those with disabilities have an easier time in a health facility. For instance, health professionals should have an awareness of how to communicate effectively with patients who are deaf/hard of hearing or have a vision, speech, or intellectual disability; medical schools providing a curriculum on how to interact with individuals with disabilities should be necessary. Healthcare providers can also implement more accessible health equipment through scales, examination tables, and chairs. Having extra time during a general examination can also allow patients with disabilities more time to accommodate the health facilities and equipment if needed.
Some individual actions health professionals can do is give patients (especially those with disabilities) on how to live a long and healthy life and listen and respond to each patient's concerns by educating them on how to prevent or treat a health condition. Communicating clearly and helping patients understand through different methods like repeating your words, utilizing other words, or providing an alternate way of information. Additionally, taking time to meet the patient’s health needs will help them feel safe and be willing to come back if they have other concerns or questions.
People with disabilities will always exist and as healthcare professionals, we should not be pushing away anyone who may need healthcare. Providing community resources, collaborating in care, and doing disability humility can help change the health outcomes for patients with disabilities and address some of the inequalities they face.
Thank you for reading!