Understanding Health Disparities

Dec 03, 2010
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As a student with a background in Kinesiology and a current focus in Disability Studies, I spend a lot of time thinking about how the two fields can be integrated. I ended up studying disability upon realizing how unprepared I was to provide services to people with disabilities in a fitness setting. I did not have the training, knowledge, experience, or resources to do the job. Knowing that I ultimately contributed to the lack of physical activity opportunities, programs, and services for people with disabilities was not ok with me. I recognized the gap in my education and decided that not only did I want to fill it for myself, I wanted to be a part of the effort to fill the gap on a larger scale. Now, when I look at kinesiology courses or fitness instructor trainings, I am constantly evaluating how a disability studies perspective and disability training could be integrated. I recognize the many challenges to doing this successfully, often rooted in how we as a society understand disability; however, I think there are some simple, small, first steps that can be taken to just start the conversation.

Suggestion #1: Include information, statistics, graphs, etc about health disparities experienced by people with disabilities. (The image to the left is an example. A discussion of that graph can be found here.)

Often, when we talk about things like heart disease, obesity, and levels of physical activity, we mention disparities between different population groups. Commonly, those groups include race, age, and gender. We note how, in general, disease risk is often higher in racial minority groups and childhood obesity is on the rise, for example, and we discuss the environmental and societal factors that lead to these disparities. Individuals with disabilities are another segment of the population that experience significant health disparities. But rarely do we even consider disability groups in this conversation. I frequently wonder why this is the case. I think there may be many reasons, including a lack of understanding of what contributes to these health disparities. With training that focuses so much on how lack of activity and obesity lead to disability, it is difficult to make a switch in our minds and consider how environmental and societal factors can lead to obesity/lack of activity/etc in people who have disabilities. I would like to suggest that by including disability as a population group in our discussions about health disparities, we can start to transition our thinking and open up the conversation. We can start to have the same kinds of discussions that we often have about racial minorities – discussions about how lack of access to resources/facilities, societal attitudes, etc. contribute to the disparities we observe. And we can start to change the way we think – and then act upon our new understanding and awareness – ultimately leading to a reduction and eventual elimination in these unnecessary disparities.

It may be a small step and it is far from the only step, but I think it’s headed in the right direction.

Author: Carolyn