Healthcare Access & Disability

Access to good quality, disability-inclusive healthcare is a hot topic these days in the disability community, and for good reason. It’s hard to find. A lot harder than you think. Why? Well, a multitude of reasons, honestly. In my opinion, it boils down to a lack of adequate disability awareness training in medical school, a lack of medical professionals WITH a disability to represent the community (I have seen a FEW, which is awesome, but still not enough), and a lack of formal training on the “culture” of living with a disability (such as pointing out barriers people with disabilities face when trying to find adequate healthcare, education, employment, housing, and transportation).

Personally, I think the two biggest reasons disability-inclusive healthcare is so hard to find is due to the lack of disability awareness training in medical school and the lack of understanding of disability as a “culture” and “community.” For me, “disability culture” is simply my perspective of living with a disability. While these perspectives can vary widely depending on the type of disability and your comfort level with identifying yourself as a member of the disability community, the way you express yourself within the context of disability culture is just that: an expression of your own unique experiences. However, with that said, there are some commonalities as well, such as the history of disability, the social aspects living with a disability, and the tendency to view disability just in terms of access.

When I say disability access in terms of healthcare, I don’t just mean physical access. While physical access is indeed important, the societal barrier of accessing quality, disability-inclusive healthcare holds even more weight in my opinion. For instance, when I was a junior in college, I started going to a physiatrist  to have someone monitor my Cerebral Palsy as an adult. Physiatry is a branch of medicine that aims to enhance and restore functional ability and quality of life to those with disabilities. You would think a doctor in this specialty of medicine would be incredibly in tune with the needs of the disability population and would have a deep understanding of disability culture. You would be wrong (in this instance, at least).

The physiatrist I saw understood disability in terms of the medical model. The medical model of disability says people are disabled by their impairments or differences. Under the medical model, these impairments or differences should be ‘fixed’ or changed by medical and other treatments, even when the impairment or difference does not cause pain or illness. How should have this physiatrist altered their perspective of disability, you ask? He should have attempted to view and understand disability from a medical AND social context.

The social model of disability says that disability is caused by the way society is organized, rather than by a person’s impairment or difference. It looks at ways of removing barriers that restrict life choices for disabled people. When barriers are removed, disabled people can be independent and equal in society, with choice and control over their own lives. In short, the social model of disability focuses on empowerment and inclusion.

To be honest, I fall somewhere in the middle of those two models. For instance, I believe that societal perceptions of disability and disability stigma and stereotypes are the biggest barriers people with disabilities face. That being said, I very much understand the biology behind Cerebral Palsy and know that my CP wasn’t “caused” by societal perceptions. It was caused by the fact that I was born three months premature and didn’t receive enough oxygen to my brain when I was born. However, I do feel that societal perceptions of disability have further exacerbated the difficulties people with disabilities face. They definitely haven’t made them any easier, that’s for sure.

I think so much of the time when people think of barriers for people with disabilities, the first thought is physical access. I hope that as the disability community grows and as I continue to speak out on issues that greatly impact my life, others will see that it’s SO much deeper than just the fact that I was born with a disability. Yes, that’s true. But the reason it can feel almost impossible to live with a disability some days is not because of the disability itself. It’s stereotypes. It’s stigma. It’s a lack of understanding.

I know bringing up disability is “uncomfortable” for a lot of people because they don’t want to potentially offend someone. However, please know, your inability to bring disability into normal every day conversation is a major part of the problem. Talk about it. Ask me about it. I won’t be offended. I’ll gladly paint a picture of what it’s like to live my life. And I’ll be honored that you cared enough to ask.

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Why Asking For Help As A Disabled Person Was The Best Gift I Ever Gave Myself

As much as I put on a “brave face” and strive to have a positive attitude on days when my CP has me doubled over in pain, there is a lot of internal frustration that comes with living with a disability. Typically, my blog has been a place to vent those frustrations. But I’d be wrong if those difficult days were the only memorable ones. Does my disability frustrate me? Absolutely. Are there days where I wish I wasn’t in constant pain? You bet. But at the end of the day, I wouldn’t trade my disability for anything. I really wouldn’t. It’s given me a perspective on life and allowed me to cross paths with some of the most special people I’ve ever known, and without my disability, I don’t know if my life would have unfolded in the same way. A blessing in disguise, I guess.

Typically, “good” days aren’t memorable. They are simply a small break, even if only for a few minutes, of the physical and emotional pain I feel as a result of being a member of the largest minority in the world. However, a few weeks ago, I had a “good day,” in a sense, and it’s one I’ll never forget.

I was going to Subway to get lunch and looking forward to having an entire hour to myself (yay introversion!). I took my walker inside, as it is my preferred method of mobility these days when I’m by myself because it prevents falls. However, when I got to the door, I realized my conundrum. I couldn’t get the door open and maintain my balance at the same time. However, thankfully, as I was attempting to open the door, someone inside saw my struggle and came to assist (thank you, kind human). I said thank you profusely, and when the gentleman just smiled broadly and nodded, I realized just how much people long to help others. Typically, it’s difficult for me to accept help as I feel like a burden, but I have to realize that typically people don’t offer to help unless they are genuine and truly do want to assist you in some way. That realization really came to fruition once I was done with my lunch, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

I stood in line to put in my lunch order, which for the first time wasn’t a big deal because my walker has an attached seat so I can sit whenever I need (best invention ever!). Anyway, I enjoyed my solo lunch, counting myself lucky to have received so much positive support from others during this difficult transition regarding my mobility. I then got up to leave, pondering in my head how I was going to exit Subway without possibly falling over or calling even more attention to myself. It was in this moment that I knew the best course of action was asking for help, so when I eyed a group of EMTs eating lunch, I asked for assistance. One guy was so excited to help he practically bounced out of his seat mid-bite to assist me, replying “Of course!” with the most genuine smile I’ve ever seen. I thought I was going to fall over (ha!) from happiness.

I thanked him over and over for his generosity, happy to know there were still kind people in the world, but that wasn’t even the best part. A few minutes later, I got to my car, opened the truck, and went to place my walker in the back like I’ve done hundreds of times without incident. However, this time I lost my balance, and because my hand was still on my walker as I was falling, my walker fell on top of me. Don’t worry, I’m fine. But it sucked. I felt embarrassed (as usual) and just aggravated at my body for not cooperating.

After a sigh of relief and a reminder to myself that the choice is to either remain on the ground or get back up, I rose to my feet. Once I was standing and started to close the truck of my car, I looked up to see the EMT from before sprinting out of the Subway. In my head, it felt like watching Baywatch, standing in awe as an attractive, shirtless man ran towards you to save the day (but he was only shirtless in my head, haha). He came up to me and said, “From the way you got up, I can tell this happens often, but is there anything I could do to help?” As much as I wanted to say no, the kindness in his eyes made me want to hug him. I didn’t hug him (which was the wrong choice because he was attractive, muscular, and looked like he could throw me over his shoulder with just a finger). However, I did take him up on his offer to help. I said, “You know what would be really great? If you could walk me to the front door of my car and help me get in safely.” The “of course” couldn’t come out of his mouth fast enough. Once seated safely, I looked up at him and said “To be totally honest, it is really hard for me to ask for help, but I’m so glad I did today.” He nodded, double-checked to make sure I was okay, and softly closed my car door.

I waited until he was back inside to cry the happy tears I couldn’t hold back anymore.