Providing Support to Patients with Disabilities

People living with disabilities, both visible and invisible, have many challenges that others may not face in their day-to-day lives or while seeking healthcare support for their conditions. Patients with disabilities are more likely to face difficulty accessing the health care they need and may have poorer health overall. Additionally, this population is also susceptible to other issues and comorbidities such as being physically inactive or substance abuse as a result of dealing with their conditions.

These patients deserve better. Health disparities resulting from inaccessible health care and a poorer quality of life linked to secondary conditions that can result from their disabling conditions need to be addressed to improve their health. 

July is Disability Pride Month and the Americans with Disabilities Act’s anniversary, so it’s a perfect time to reflect on how you, as a healthcare professional, are impacting your patients and community members with disabilities. It’s also a necessary time to think about how you can help provide all patients with the best care possible.

Disability Pride Month

Disability Pride Month happens in July every year. In 2024, the theme is “Celebrate & Foster Inclusion.” And, this year is the Americans with Disabilities Act’s 34th birthday, too, with a general theme to “Celebrate. Learn. Share.” 

These are appropriate themes, because so many people with disabilities are not included when they should be, and it’s necessary to not only learn and share more about these conditions but also to celebrate the people who live with them.

Working with Disabled Patients

Many healthcare providers work with patients with disabilities and can make a difference in their lives by providing quality care. Some of the providers who regularly work with people with disabilities include:

  • Nurses: Nurses work with those with disabilities in a variety of settings including hospitals, homes, nursing homes, schools, and elsewhere.
  • Occupational therapists: Occupational therapists may work with those with disabilities to help them build on their abilities to better perform tasks in their day-to-day lives. 
  • Physical therapists: Physical therapists may work with those with disabilities and assist with physical conditioning, strengthening, and rehabilitation.
  • Psychologists: Psychologists may work with those with disabilities to help them with the psychological challenges (anxiety, depression, and others) of living with disabling conditions. 
  • Speech-language pathologists: SLPs work in many environments. They may work with adults in acute care, for example, helping them learn or relearn how to communicate effectively.
  • Social workers: Social workers may help those with disabilities in several ways, including assisting them in finding work or support.
  • Case managers: Case managers work with individuals with disabilities to create and implement plans to help promote better communication, services, and support for their needs. 

If you are in one of these roles, you may work with patients in several settings, including:

  • Acute Care
  • Ambulatory and Long-Term Care
  • Behavioral Health and Mental Health
  • Home Health Care
  • Rehabilitation

Since disabilities range in severity and how they affect the patient, you may work with someone to help them learn to live with a new disability, for example, or assist them during a flare of an existing and progressive disabling condition. Depending on the condition and the patient’s needs, you may work with them at home, in behavioral health or mental health settings, or in long-term or acute care. 

Recognizing Challenges in Healthcare

Patients with disabilities face a variety of challenges, but one of the first barriers to care comes in the form of the environment around them.

Environmental challenges include:

  • Inaccessibility, such as no obvious or easy-to-access wheelchair ramps or door mechanisms that don’t open when pressed
  • A lack of assistive technology, such as not having someone in the office who can use American Sign Language (ASL)
  • The use of items that may trigger disabling conditions, such as perfumes or fragrances that could trigger respiratory episodes
  • High countertops or other items designed for standing use only

Simply making a medical office or hospital more accessible immediately opens up care to those living with disabilities. Still, these are not the only barriers people with disabilities face. Other barriers may include:

  • Transportation barriers, such as an inability to get where they need to go due to a lack of accessible transportation services
  • Physical barriers, such as structures that hinder those with mobility impairments
  • Policy barriers, such as denying reasonable accommodations to those who need them
  • Communication barriers, including a lack of Braille or large-print literature
  • Social barriers, such as having a lack of access to employment and income
  • Programmatic barriers, such as inconvenient scheduling or a provider’s lack of education on disabilities
  • Attitudinal barriers, including stereotyping and prejudice against those with disabilities

Individually, you can take a stand to help those with disabilities live more independently and have a better quality of life. By advocating for changes in your workplace, such as always having braille in addition to printed copies of patient pamphlets or scheduling monthly educational sessions for the providers in your office or facility, you can begin to create a more inclusive environment for all. 

Empowering Patients with Disabilities

Healthcare providers can take several steps to empower their patients. The Surgeon General has created  the “Call to Action to Improve Health and Wellness of Persons with Disabilitiesthat states all medical professionals should:

  • Listen. Listen to your patient and their concerns. Talk to them about their conditions and what they need to know to be as healthy as possible. Give them information about their condition(s), even if they don’t ask. 
  • Be clear. Be direct with patients, and ensure they understand your diagnosis, prescriptions, or orders. If they don’t understand, repeat what you’ve said or say it in a new way to accommodate their needs.
  • Put patients before time. Give patients the time necessary to adequately discuss their concerns and health care needs. 

By actively listening and becoming more inclusive, you’ll be a part of the change needed and support the recognition, inclusion, and acceptance of disabilities in healthcare. 

Are you looking for a role where you can make a difference for your patients? At Supplemental Health Care, we can help place you in a role where you can work with those with disabilities. To learn more, visit us online.

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