Disability is extremely diverse. While some health conditions associated with disability result in poor health and extensive health care needs, others do not. However all people with disabilities have the same general health care needs as everyone else, and therefore need access to mainstream health care services.
Article 25 of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) reinforces the right of persons with disabilities to attain the highest standard of health care, without discrimination.
- Over a billion people, about 15% of the world’s population have some form of disability, 110 million and 190 million people have significant difficulties in functioning.
- Rates of disability are increasing due to population ageing and increases in chronic health conditions, among other causes.
- People with disabilities have less access to health care services and therefore experience unmet health care needs.
In our today’s Health Matters edition, we continue with Dr Hassan Azadeh, our health adviser who is also a senior lecturer at the University of The Gambia focusing on people with impairment (weaken in strength), disabilities and handicap living in a society in a poor health, hopelessness and with little chance of survival and long life.
What is definition of disability?
The most commonly cited definition is that of the World Health Organisation in 1976, which draws a three-fold distinction between impairment, disability and handicap, defined as follows. ‘
Impairment is any loss or abnormality of psychological, physiological or anatomical structure or function; Disability is any restriction or lack (resulting from an impairment) of ability to perform an activity in the manner or within the range considered normal for a human being; Handicap is a disadvantage for a given individual, resulting from an impairment or a disability, that prevents the fulfilment of a role that is considered normal (depending on age, sex and social and cultural factors) for that individual.
People with a disability may include:
- people who are blind or partially sighted
- people with learning or intellectual disabilities
- people who are deaf or hearing impaired
- people with a physical disability
- people with long term illnesses
- people with mental health or psychological difficulties
- people with an acquired brain injury
According to the World Health Organisation, a disability is “Any restriction or lack (resulting from any impairment) of ability to perform an activity in the manner or within the range considered normal for a human being”
A disability includes those that:
- are present, or
- once existed but don’t any more, for example, a person who has had a back injury, a heart attack or an episode of mental illness, or
- may exist in the future, for example, a person with a genetic predisposition to a disease, such as Huntington’s disease or heart disease or a person who is HIV positive, or
- Someone thinks or assumes a person has.
“Language is critical in shaping and reflecting our thoughts, beliefs, feelings and concepts. Some words by their very nature degrade and diminish people with a disability”
The term “disabled young person” tends to convey a message that the only thing worth mentioning about a person is their disability. It is better to say “young person with a disability” as this emphasises the person first without denying the reality of the disability.
Terms such as cripple, spastic, handicapped, invalid are derogatory, offensive and you should avoid them.
Sometimes people with a disability are compared to normal people. This implies that the person with a disability is abnormal and ignores the fact that everyone has their own unique identity and abilities. For comparisons you could say other people instead.
Disability and health
The International Classification of Functioning, Disability and Health (ICF) defines disability as an umbrella term for impairments, activity limitations and participation restrictions. Disability is the interaction between individuals with a health condition (e.g. cerebral palsy, Down syndrome and depression) and personal and environmental factors (e.g. negative attitudes, inaccessible transportation and public buildings, and limited social supports).
Over a billion people are estimated to live with some form of disability. This corresponds to about 15% of the world’s population. Between 110 million (2.2%) and 190 million (3.8%) people 15 years and older have significant difficulties in functioning. Furthermore, the rates of disability are increasing in part due to ageing populations and an increase in chronic health conditions.
Unmet needs for health care
People with disabilities report seeking more health care than people without disabilities and have greater unmet needs. For example, a recent survey of people with serious mental disorders, showed that between 35% and 50% of people in developed countries, and between 76% and 85% in developing countries, received no treatment in the year prior to the study.
Health promotion and prevention activities seldom target people with disabilities. For example women with disabilities receive less screening for breast and cervical cancer than women without disabilities. People with intellectual impairments and diabetes are less likely to have their weight checked.
How are the lives of people with disabilities affected?
People with disabilities are particularly vulnerable to deficiencies in health care services. Depending on the group and setting, persons with disabilities may experience greater vulnerability to secondary conditions, co-morbid conditions, age-related conditions, engaging in health risk behaviours and higher rates of premature death.
Secondary conditions occur in addition to (and are related to) a primary health condition, and are both predictable and therefore preventable. Examples include pressure ulcers, urinary tract infections, osteoporosis and pain.
The ageing process for some groups of people with disabilities begins earlier than usual. For example some people with developmental disabilities show signs of premature ageing in their 40s and 50s.
Engaging in health risk behaviours
Some studies have indicated that people with disabilities have higher rates of risky behaviours such as smoking, poor diet and physical inactivity.
Higher rates of premature death
Mortality (death) rates for people with disabilities vary depending on the health condition. However an investigation in the United Kingdom found that people with mental health disorders and intellectual impairments had a lower life expectancy.
Barriers to health care
People with disabilities encounter a range of barriers when they attempt to access health care including the following.
Affordability of health services and transportation are two main reasons why people with disabilities do not receive needed health care in low-income countries – 32-33% of non-disabled people are unable to afford health care compared to 51-53% of people with disabilities.
Limited availability of services
The lack of appropriate services for people with disabilities is a significant barrier to health care. For example, research in Uttar Pradesh and Tamil Nadu states of India found that after the cost, the lack of services in the area was the second most significant barrier to using health facilities.
Uneven access to buildings (hospitals, health centres), inaccessible medical equipment, poor signage, narrow doorways, internal steps, inadequate bathroom facilities, and inaccessible parking areas create barriers to health care facilities. For example, women with mobility difficulties are often unable to access breast and cervical cancer screening.
Inadequate skills and knowledge of health workers
People with disabilities were more than twice as likely to report finding health care provider skills inadequate to meet their needs, four times more likely to report being treated badly and nearly three times more likely to report being denied care.
Addressing barriers to health care
Governments can improve health outcomes for people with disabilities by improving access to quality, affordable health care services, which make the best use of available resources. As several factors interact to inhibit access to health care, reforms in all the interacting components of the health care system are required.
Assess existing policies and services, identify priorities to reduce health inequalities and plan improvements for access and inclusion. Establish health care standards related to care of persons with disabilities with enforcement mechanisms.
Integrate disability education into undergraduate and continuing education for all health-care professionals. Train community workers so that they can play a role in preventive health care services. Provide evidence-based guidelines for assessment and treatment.
Data and research
In order to improve access to health services for people with disabilities, WHO:
- guides and supports Member States to increase awareness of disability issues, and promotes the inclusion of disability as a component in national health policies and programmes;
- facilitates data collection and dissemination of disability-related data and information;
- develops normative tools, including guidelines to strengthen health care;
- builds capacity among health policy-makers and service providers;
- promotes scaling up of CBR;
- Promotes strategies to ensure that people with disabilities are knowledgeable about their own health conditions and that health-care personnel support and protect the rights and dignity of persons with disabilities.