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A Third of Folks with Disabilities Face Healthcare Discrimination

Around half of the people with disabilities who reported healthcare discrimination said it led them to either delay or forgo healthcare access.

Four in 10 people with disabilities report unfair treatment in healthcare settings, the workplace, and in accessing public benefits, according to Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and Urban Institute data that sheds light on how healthcare discrimination can color care experiences for this population.

All said, 32 percent of adults with disabilities said they experienced some sort of unfair treatment because of their disabilities or other personal characteristics, a rate that far outpaces the experiences of adults without disabilities.

“Despite more than 30 years of law prohibiting discrimination against people with disabilities, unequal treatment persists,” Rachele Tardi, senior program officer at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and liaison to the President’s Council of the Disability and Philanthropy Forum, said in an emailed statement. “Achieving equity for people with disabilities requires continuous improvement in policy, as well as public and private investment in access and resources.”

These findings come soon after the National Institutes of Health (NIH) designated people with disabilities as a population facing health disparities. While the health disparities impacting individuals with disabilities are driven by a number of factors, this RWJF/Urban Institute report shows how healthcare discrimination can have an impact.

The researchers looked at 2022 data from the Urban Institute’s Well-Being and Basic Needs Survey, asking respondents ages 18 to 64 with and without disabilities about their experiences in healthcare settings plus work and when applying for public benefits.

All said, 40 percent of people with disabilities said they experienced unfair treatment in one of those three settings. That compares to just 18 percent of people without disabilities reporting the same.

Looking at healthcare specifically, 32 percent of people with disabilities said they were treated unfairly due to their disability or other personal characteristics, compared to 10 percent of individuals without disabilities.

For 14 percent of respondents with disabilities, discrimination was perceived as being due to their specific disability or health status. Another 14 percent said discrimination stemmed from their weight, 12 percent because of their insurance type, 11 percent because of their gender/gender identity/sexual orientation, 10 percent because of their race/ethnicity/country of origin/language preference, and 9 percent because of their income or education.

These figures dwarf those for individuals without disabilities reporting the same types of discrimination. For example, while 11 percent of people with disabilities reported discrimination on the basis of their gender/gender identity/sexual orientation, only 3 percent of the population without disabilities reported the same.

Put otherwise, even when discrimination had nothing to do with disability or health status, people with disabilities were more likely to report unfair treatment than their counterparts without disabilities.

Unsurprisingly, there were racial disparities at play. Black and Hispanic people with disabilities were more likely than White people with disabilities to report unfair treatment or judgment in each of the studied settings because of their race, ethnicity, country of origin, or primary language.

This level of discrimination has its consequences. For 71 percent of disabled adults who reported unfair treatment in healthcare settings, this experience discouraged care access. Around half delayed care (54 percent) or didn’t get it at all (50 percent) because of the negative experience.

There were also consequences in the workplace and in access to public benefits, namely that people felt they should look for another job or that they delayed or did not get the public benefits to which they were entitled. Although not specifically discrimination in the healthcare setting, these findings can indicate issues with key social determinants of health, which have downstream impacts on individual well-being.

“These findings show that experiences of unfair treatment were common among people with disabilities – causing disruptions in healthcare and employment, and delays in accessing public benefits to help them meet their basic needs,” Dulce Gonzalez, Urban Institute research associate, said in the emailed press release.

“Addressing the structural barriers and biases that undermine the health and wellbeing of disabled people will require intentional and sustained public and private sector responses developed in partnership with people with disabilities.”

Instances of discrimination based on any factor or personal characteristic are signals of deep healthcare inequity, something the industry is trying to stamp out. As noted above, the NIH recently designated people with disabilities as a population facing health disparities.

The distinction gives NIH the power to allocate more funding toward researching the health disparities affecting individuals with disabilities, the forces behind those disparities, and solutions to promoting equity.

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