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Inequalities in Healthcare for Disabled Individuals

Updated: Apr 19, 2023

The poor mental and physical health of people with disabilities has been well documented and there is evidence to suggest that inequalities in health between people with and without disabilities may be at least partly explained by the socioeconomic disadvantage (e.g. low education, unemployment) experienced by people with disabilities.

Health care inequality is when one group of people in an economy are in much worse health than another group. In the United States, health inequality is correlated with income inequality. Research has found that the higher your income, the better your health.

Inequalities exists across the board for those with disabilities

Health inequities are reflected in differences in length of life; quality of life; rates of disease, disability, and death; severity of disease; and access to treatment. When it comes to health care, significant disparities abound between people with disabilities and non-disabled people. From physical barriers and discrimination to financial hurdles and a lack of available resources, access to health care is alarmingly inequitable for disabled people around the world.

“People with disabilities face higher healthcare needs, more barriers to accessing services, and less health coverage, resulting in worse health outcomes.” There are many misconceptions about people with disabilities. Healthy People 2020 identifies four that emerge: (1) all people with disabilities automatically have poor health, (2) public health should focus only on preventing disabling conditions, (3) a standard definition of “disability” or “people with disabilities” is not needed for public health purposes, and (4) the environment plays no role in the disabling process.7 These misconceptions have led to a lack of health promotion and disease prevention activities targeting people with disabilities and an increase in the occurrence of secondary conditions.8

State and national data demonstrate disparities in health for people with disabilities and suggest that having a disability can create risks for other preventable health issues. They experience disparities in routine public health areas like health behaviors, preventive services and chronic conditions.7 Compared to people without disabilities, people with disabilities are less likely to report having recommended preventive screening, including mammograms and colorectal cancer screening, and are less likely to have received dental care in the past year.1 They are also more likely to engage in unhealthy behaviors like smoking at a much higher prevalence rate (28.3%) than people without disabilities (16.1%).1

The health of people with disabilities should be relatively comparable to those without disabilities. Similar to the general population, it is critical that individuals with disabilities are given the information to make healthy choices on how to prevent illness. Activities such as physical activity, smoking cessation, healthy eating, and preventive screenings should be promoted and accessible to all Americans, as there is a range of health benefits for people with and without disabilities.9

Despite legislative actions like the American’s with Disabilities Act (ADA) (see Policy and Disability) many barriers to accessing and participating in healthy lifestyle activities still exist for people with disabilities. Barriers may include such factors as inaccessible health care facilities or health screening equipment, discriminatory attitudes, poverty, and lack of knowledge among people with disabilities or their health care providers, and cost. People with disabilities are more than twice as likely to report cost being a barrier to health care (27.4% compared to 12.5% of people without disabilities).1 Lack of knowledge or experience on how to interact and communicate with people with disabilities may lead to false assumptions, generalizations, or a lack of trust among people with and without disabilities. Such barriers prevent achieving maximum health.

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