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Women with disabilities have many of the same health concerns and needs as all women — such as needing routine Pap tests or treatment for the flu or an infection. They also might have special health concerns related to their disabilities or illnesses.
Yet people with disabilities often face barriers to receiving good overall health care. Part of the problem is that some doctors have had limited experience treating patients with disabilities, both during their medical training and in their practice. As a result, a doctor might focus on the patient's disability rather than on the health problem that brought the patient to the doctor in the first place. The doctor also might not know to check for health conditions that are more common among people with disabilities, such as depression or pressure sores.
Another issue is physical barriers at health care facilities. Although the Americans with Disabilities Act requires that all public buildings, including health care facilities, be accessible to people with disabilities, problems still remain. For instance, many doctors do not have exam tables that can be lowered for easy access by patients in wheelchairs. As a result, the doctor may do a pelvic exam on a woman while she is seated in her wheelchair. This set-up does not allow for a thorough exam. A health problem, such as a vaginal infection, is easy to overlook.
More and more, doctors and others who provide health care are becoming aware of the barriers faced by people with disabilities and are working to address them. But if you have a disability, you need to look out for yourself to ensure that you get the best possible health care. This is important for all people, but even more so for people with disabilities.
If you are disabled, you can take steps to be sure you are getting the best possible health care:
Recovery from a serious injury or illness can take a lot of time. If you have been hurt or sick, you may need to regain your strength, relearn skills, or find new ways of doing things you did before. This process is called rehabilitation. Many types of therapies can be used in rehabilitation. These therapies can also be useful for people who are born with certain disabilities.
To start a rehabilitation program, your doctor will refer you to a rehabilitation center or to a specific type of therapist. Here are some types of therapies used in rehabilitation programs:
Physical therapy aims to improve:
A physical therapist may give you certain physical activities to do to improve your ability to move or to strengthen your muscles. For instance, the parallel bars can help if you are having problems keeping your balance or walking. You hold onto the bars as you relearn how to stand up straight or to walk. The physical therapist may also give you certain activities to do to help improve your overall physical fitness. Being physically fit is important for preventing diseases such as heart disease and osteoporosis.
An occupational therapist helps people do activities of daily living that are made difficult by a disorder or injury. These could be activities at home, on the job, or at school. They include activities such as dressing, feeding yourself, bathing, writing, using a computer mouse, paying attention, and remembering things. Occupational therapists also can help some children with autism learn how to interact with others.
First, an occupational therapist will evaluate how well you do something that you're having a problem with. Then he or she may suggest a different way of doing it. For instance, an occupational therapist may help a person with a paralyzed arm learn new ways to dress and fasten buttons. An occupational therapist also might recommend helpful devices. For instance, for a person with impaired hearing, the therapist might recommend a telephone that has a flashing light instead of a ring.
The therapist who helps people with speech and language disorders is called a speech-language pathologist. A speech-language pathologist might:
Vocational therapists help people with disabilities get jobs. They can help people with disabilities identify job strengths and develop résumés that highlight those strengths. They also can help in job searches and educate people with disabilities about their legal rights regarding employment.
Recreational therapists help people with disabilities use their free time to improve health, sense of self and body image, independence, and quality of life. For instance, children who are mildly impaired by cerebral palsy are sometimes taught to ride horses. Besides helping them learn to move better, the therapy often improves their mood and boosts self-esteem.
As part of your rehabilitation, you may see a psychotherapist, such as a counselor, clinical psychologist, or psychiatrist. A psychotherapist can help people with disabilities cope with depression and other emotional problems.
A rehabilitation program can be:
Depending on your needs, you may also be able to get rehabilitation services at home. When choosing a rehabilitation program, find out about the quality of the program that you are considering. One way to do this is to check to see if the program is accredited. Accreditation is like a "seal of approval" given to hospitals and other health care facilities. Accredited programs meet high standards of excellence in service and quality. Two accrediting groups that look at how well rehabilitation programs perform are:
Another way to judge the quality of a rehabilitation program is to contact the program and ask questions, including:
Clinical trials are studies aimed at finding ways to prevent or treat illness or disability.
If you have an illness or disability, you can help yourself and others by taking part in clinical trials. Find out more about clinical trials at http://www.clinicaltrials.gov.
Content last updated: September 22, 2009.
Resources last updated: September 22, 2009.