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Otherwise Healthy

This post is shared as part of Blogging Against Disablism Day 2016. To learn more about this day and read other posts, visit the link.

My friend Lynda wrote a book entitled Otherwise Healthy after her diagnosis of breast cancer. The book is a resource and guide for those facing a health crisis. Although it is geared towards cancer, the chapters can apply to anyone who finds themselves living through chronic illness or disease, endless doctor visits, tests and treatments.

Lynda came up with the title after reading one of her medical reports which said (I’m paraphrasing), “This otherwise healthy woman comes to me after being diagnosed with breast cancer.” When I read this story in the book introduction, it struck me that I have never seen those words written about myself. I have never heard a doctor say I am “otherwise healthy.”

A part of me (the part that understands the medical model of disability which views disability as a deficit which must be cured) can understand why medical professionals do not consider me a healthy woman. I have lived with a progressive neuromuscular disease all of my life. I have used a wheelchair for 100% of my community mobility since 1994. I require the aid of Personal Assistants (PAs) to complete activities of daily living such as bathing, dressing, or using the toilet. Without assistance from my PAs, I would be unable to live independently and would require institutional care.

One of the reasons doctors may not view me as “otherwise healthy” is because I am an outlier when it comes to health and disability. According to the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, disability is associated with health disparities. I took a look at the data for my home state (New York) and found I am not the average when it comes to health and disability. If you consider metrics of health such as blood pressure, cholesterol, weight and lifestyle choices, I am a very healthy woman compared to other disabled adults in New York. My blood pressure and cholesterol are within recommended ranges, unlike the 40 % of disabled adults in New York who report high blood pressure and the 43 % who have high cholesterol. I have lost almost ten pounds this year, bringing me back to a healthy weight, unlike 40% of disabled adults in New York who are obese. For the first time in almost twenty years I am exercising almost every day, something only 13% of my disabled peers claim. I have never smoked, unlike 30% of disabled adults in New York who smoke regularly. While I do enjoy wine I drink alcohol in moderation, unlike 15% of disabled adults in New York who report binge drinking (this is less than the 19% of nondisabled New Yorkers). I do not use any other drugs and do not take any prescription medications. Yes, I am a forty-two year old disabled woman who does not take any prescription medications. Whenever I see new doctors, they are always amazed by this. More importantly, I consider myself to be in good health, unlike 43% of disabled New Yorkers who consider their health to be fair or poor.

So if I consider myself to be in good health, why is it difficult for medical professionals to view me as “otherwise healthy?” I think it is because the doctors, who are still mostly nondisabled men, have difficulty seeing anything but my shiny red wheelchair. They do not view me as a complete person, a common complaint of many of my friends with various disabilities. Doctors see the disability first and think this is the one factor that must influence my health most significantly. They see the disabled woman – weak and contracted muscles, needing assistance, not curable, not fixable – instead of a woman with a full-time job, volunteer obligations and hobbies. Thus, somehow they jump to the conclusion my health must be poor because I have been living with disability my entire life.

When medical professionals wrongly assume I am unhealthy just because I am disabled, they often make other false assumptions about me. I have had doctors and nurses look at me with shock when they discover I have been sexually active. I know some of my family members read my blog and may not want to think about this – but medical professionals should not assume someone is celibate just because they have a disability. Several doctors looked at me askance when I asked about birth control options. Let’s not even talk about the many times I tried to raise the topic of having a tubal ligation, only to have multiple doctors flat out refuse to discuss it as an option.

If doctors viewed their disabled patients as having the potential for good health, the statistics on health and disability might change. If medical professionals looked at their disabled patients as complete people, not just a disease or disability, they would start treating the entire person instead of just the disease or disability. When I was hospitalized due to complications after my gallbladder surgery three years ago, doctors and nurses treated me differently after my sisters encouraged them to stop looking at my wheelchair and start seeing me. I am fortunate to have had advocates to speak on my behalf. I worry about those who do not have such support systems.

One way to help medical professionals view disabled patients as complete people is to introduce the social model of disability in medical training. The social model, which does not view disability as a medical condition or defect in need of a cure, seeks to change society to better meet the needs of the disabled. The social model recognizes my mobility impairment will not go away, does not need to go away for me to be a complete person. Rather, society needs to adapt to accommodate my needs so I can participate fully in my community. I do not know how to incorporate this model into western medical training which is built around helping doctors learn how to “fix patients.” Perhaps I’ll explore that next year for Blogging Against Disablism.

Until then, I hope someday my doctors will view me as “otherwise healthy.” That is how I view myself – and it is how I deserve to be seen.