November 8, 2022

Healthcare equity is still needed for people with disabilities

A group of patients in a hospital hallway sitting in wheelchairs and benches.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) became law in the U.S. more than 30 years ago. One of its requirements is for health care providers, from hospitals to doctors and nurses, to ensure full and equal access to every patient, regardless of disability. Unfortunately, there is still work to be done to achieve this. People with disabilities of all types have reported difficulties in accessing health care. An article published last month in the New York Times (https://www.nytimes.com/2022/10/19/health/doctors-patients-disabilities.html) showcased a recent study from Northwestern University which suggests that some doctors and their clinics are discriminating against patients with disabilities by choosing not to provide them with care.

The study gathered doctors in focus groups to get their thoughts about patients with disabilities, and a shocking number of them expressed discomfort or even hostility towards treating patients with disabilities. When asked if they viewed the ADA as beneficial, many of the doctors were either neutral about this or adversarial, with one saying that the ADA works “against physicians.” They expressed concern over lawsuits from people with disabilities and some doctors have found it easier to just not see those patients.

This may be done by strategically finding ways to avoid scheduling appointments, such as by claiming that they are not taking new clients or telling patients with disabilities that they need a more specialized amount of care than a general practitioner can provide.

The authors of the study theorized a possible cause of this behavior could be a general lack of awareness and exposure to people with disabilities. Some of the doctors interviewed seemed genuinely unsure whether they would be able to provide the care needed. This was often attributed to a lack of familiarity with people with disabilities, with some stating they were doubtful they would be able to provide appropriate accommodations.

To read the study and the author’s conclusions and recommendations: https://www.healthaffairs.org/doi/full/10.1377/hlthaff.2022.00475

Nearly one in five Americans has a disability of some kind, making it essential for doctors and health care providers to be able to provide them the same level of care as anyone else. If you have a disability, make sure you know your rights so you can advocate for yourself. Remember, people without disabilities can and should advocate for accommodations and access for everyone. When everyone in our society is able to receive the healthcare they need to live fulfilling lives, it makes all of us stronger and healthier.