Women with Disabilities and Health Care: What the Research Shows

A recent study by the National Council on Disability (NCD) titled “The Current State of Health Care for People with Disabilities” provided sobering statistics regarding all aspects of health and healthcare for women with disabilities.

Notes the report,

Recent research reveals that women with disabilities experience poorer health than women who do not have disabilities, despite the fact that both groups report the same types of health problems. Nearly a third of women with extensive functional limitations rate their overall health as poor compared with less than 1 percent of women with no limitations. [“Improving the Health and Wellness of Women with Disabilities: A Symposium to Establish a Research Agenda,” Center for Research on Women with Disabilities (CROWD), Baylor College of Medicine]

In addition,

As they age, women with disabilities tend to have poorer health than women who do not have disabilities. They are more likely to be overweight, smoke, have high blood pressure, and experience mental health problems. Women with more significant disabilities are more likely to live alone, be unemployed, have less education, be divorced, and live in poverty. [Susan L. Parish and M. Jennifer Ellison-Martin, “Health-Care Access of Women Medicaid Recipients: Evidence of Disability-based Disparities,” Journal of Disability Policy Studies 18, no. 2 (2007), pp. 109–116]

Women with Disabilities Can Control Some Health Outcomes

Two of the issues most critical to the health of women with disabilities, however, are “lifestyle” issues that with the right encouragement, motivation, and information, they may be able to address themselves: specifically, smoking and obesity. According to a 2008 study from the National Center for Health Statistics, “about 30 percent of women with basic actions difficulties were overweight, and 31 percent were obese. Among those with complex activity limitations, almost 30 percent reported being overweight, and over 34 percent were obese. Slightly over 23 percent of women with complex activity limitations smoke, compared with 22.5 percent of women with basic actions difficulties. [Altman and Bernstein, Disability and Health in the United States, 2008]

But Getting Decent Reproductive Health Care is Still a Problem

Reproductive care for women with disabilities seems to prove especially problematic. The NCD researchers found that although women with disabilities require the exact same health services related to sexuality, reproductive care, and childbearing as do women without disabilities, …..social misperceptions and stereotypes about disability can make it difficult for women with disabilities to obtain information, medical care, and services to ensure that their reproductive needs are met. Such needs include routine gynecological and breast examinations; screening for sexually transmitted diseases (STDs); contraception; consultations about sexuality and sexual function; fertility consultation and support; obstetrical care during pregnancy, labor, and delivery; and information about healthy parenting and about issues related to menopause, including osteoporosis, loss of libido, and insomnia.

The types of barriers encountered by women with disabilities in need of reproductive health care, according to the NCD report, included:… limited professional training and competency of primary care and reproductive care specialists; inadequate or no health insurance coverage for visits to specialists; poor physical access to usable and adapted or specialized examination and diagnostic equipment; and negative or discriminatory provider attitudes. Although the source of this statement, Sandra A. Welner’s “Gynecologic Care and Sexuality Issues for Women with Disabilities,” (Sexuality and Disability, v. 15, no. 1, 1997) is now more ten years old, anecdotal evidence among Disaboom’s members indicates that not much has changed since Ms. Welner undertook her research.

Decent HealthCare for Women with Disabilities: Where to Start

For starters, we’d send every legislator and local politician the link to the NCD’s outstanding and comprehensive report, “The Current State of Health Care for People with Disabilities”. Next, we’d send the same link and report information to the American Medical Association to inquire as to what steps their members are taking to help remedy these appalling statistics. (We just e-mailed them to ask about their progress on insisting on accessible doctors’ offices and diagnostic equipment.) Next, you may want to take a look at the health issues that are within your control: stop smoking, start a modest exercise program with the counsel of your medical professional, and learn what to eat and what not. True, these are just starting points to address a big and complex challenge, but starting somewhere is better than not starting at all.

Disaboom

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