Health Care for People with Disabilities

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Photo: Jerry talking with doctorDecember 3 is International Day of Persons with Disabilities. 29% of adults with disabilities report unmet health care needs compared to 12% of adults without disabilities.i Read tips for health care providers and people with disabilities.

Sometimes we take things for granted, such as being able to open a door, fill out a form, or see our doctor. For people with disabilities, seeing a doctor can be difficult because of barriers to medical care that exist - barriers that people without disabilities don't experience.

For example, a person with a disability who visits a doctor may need to reach counters and use exam tables that are low enough, read health information with large enough print, and receive health screenings with medical staff who adapt to meet the individual's specific needs (for example, a woman who needs her arms lifted during a mammogram).

Access to quality and timely health care is critical for everyone. Hospitals, clinics and health organizations, including CDC, are working to reduce the disparities in access to health care for people with disabilities compared to people without disabilities.

Jerry's Story

Photo: Jerry with doctor Jerry is a 53-year-old father of four children. He's independent, has a house, raised a family and his adult kids still look to him for support. Jerry recently retired as a computer programmer in 2009, and competes and coaches in several sports. This "healthy, everyday Joe, living a normal life" has even participated in the Boston Marathon.

Jerry also has had a disability for over 35 years. In 1976 on December 3 (the same day that International Day of Persons with Disabilities is recognized) Jerry was hit by a drunk driver. The accident left him as a partial paraplegic.

Jerry's life is not defined by his disability. He lives life just like anyone else without a disability would live their life. "There's lots I can do, and there are some things that I can't do," said Jerry. "I drive, I invest money. I'm not rich, but I'm not poor. I enjoy being healthy, and being independent."

As a person with a disability, however, Jerry has experienced many barriers. Recovering from recent rotator cuff surgery, his rehabilitation specialists "couldn't see past his disability," administering tests and delivering additional rehabilitation visits that a person without a disability wouldn't receive. He once was being prepared for surgery when a nurse proclaimed "he doesn't need an epidural, he's a paraplegic." Jerry had to inform the nurse that he was only a partial paraplegic and that he would indeed need an epidural.

Mark's Story

This video tells the story of Mark and his role as a person with a disability to help future health care providers improve their care of people with disabilities.

Jerry was in line at an Alabama court house to renew his parking permit and also renew his son's registration. He watched a worker walk down the line and ask people "what do you need?". When she got to Jerry and saw his wheelchair, he was asked "who are you here with?". And Jerry finds it difficult to go to concerts and baseball games with a large family or friends gathering, because rarely are handicap-accessible tickets available for more than two people.

Jerry has seen a lot in over 35 years as someone living with a disability. He's seen many of the barriers and attitudes towards people with disabilities persist. But he's also seen many positive changes to get people with disabilities physically active through recreational opportunities such as golf, fishing and even snow-skiing. There are now organizations such as Lakeshore FoundationExternal Web Site Icon-where Jerry works part-time coaching youth basketball and track-that provide recreational opportunities.

Jerry states: "I don't expect the world to revolve around us. I will adapt - just make it so I can adapt."

CDC would like to thank Jerry for sharing his personal story.

Tips for Getting the Best Possible Health Care

If you are a person with a disability, there are many things you can do to make sure you are getting the best possible health care:

  • Know your body, how you feel when you're well and when you're not.
  • Get regular preventive screenings (e.g., mammograms, colorectal).
  • Talk openly with your health care professional about your concerns.
  • Find out who the best health care professionals are in your area to meet your needs.
  • Check to be sure you can get into your health care professional's office and that he or she has the staff and equipment you need.
  • Think through your concerns before you visit your health care professional.
  • Bring your health records with you.
  • Take a friend with you, if you're concerned you might not remember all your questions and all the answers.
  • Get it in writing. Write down, or have someone write down for you, what is said by the health care professional.
  • Ask for help finding more information through materials like brochures, or at specific web pages on the Internet.

Tips for Health Care Providers

If you are a doctor, nurse and other provider of care, you can do a lot to improve the health and wellness of people with disabilities. For instance:

  • Photo: Woman in wheelchair raising handsAddress the medical needs of the whole person, not just the disability.
  • Be as attentive to concerns of pain, depression, job pressures, smoking and alcohol use as you would with patients without disabilities.
  • Be aware and patient of the extra time it might take a person with a disability to speak or act.
  • Recommend and monitor clinical preventive services as closely as you would with patients without disabilities.
  • Know that the facilities you refer patients to for preventive screenings (e.g., mammograms) are accessible.
  • Ensure that your facility is fully accessibleExternal Web Site Icon (e.g., parking, exam tables, restrooms, etc.).
  • Ask the person with a disability if he or she needs any help. Do not assume help is needed.
  • Understand that not having access to work, school, health care, or fun things to do can be socially isolating and unhealthy.
  • Seek training on disability competenceExternal Web Site Icon for health professionals.

What CDC is Doing

CDC works with national organizations and states to improve access to health care services for people with disabilities. Eighteen state-based disability and health programs are funded and supported by CDC to prevent disease and promote wellness in people with disabilities, which includes activities that specifically address access to health care services and programs.

CDC's work with states is expected to result in:

  • Increased participation in preventive health screenings by people with disabilities.
  • Improved diagnosis and treatment of health conditions of people with disabilities.
  • Increased number of staff trained in responding to the needs of people with disabilities during examinations.
  • Increased number of facilities offering accessible exam tables, scales and preventive procedures.
  • Improved quality of care and increased inclusion of people with disabilities in public health activities and preventive services.
  • Promotion of, and expanded accessibility in, transportation systems.

More Information



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