The disability experience and health are so connected and yet their complex relationship is far from understood. Disabilities are not diseases for the most part, and many aren’t even detrimental to one’s health in the least degree, yet they are often labeled as such. Short of having a disability ourselves, living with an individual with a disability in our family, or being/working close enough to see woes on the faces of people and families as they make an attempt to work through each of the life’s challenges, it is unlikely that we will be able to understand what they go through without significant and focused effort. Even then, do we truly know what is experienced?
The Disability Experience
We do not understand the disability experience well in our society as a whole. There are some small sub-sets of professions and individuals that make an honest effort to learn about disability on more than a surface level. These professionals, like me, approach disability from several models. I work with fascinatingly unique individuals every day and am only an infant in my quest to learn more completely about the disability experience. The important thing to realize is how easily people with disabilities are classified as “less than” their peers, limiting access to “regular” community services and activities, including those found in the complex category of health (and wellness).
How do we balance the disability experience with health?
What can we do to promote a healthy lifestyle for individuals with disabilities? These are difficult questions. I’ve seen many individuals, with and without disabilities, increase in size and weight as they age. At certain stages of growth and development, this is a good thing, but neglecting health will lead to challenges beyond our ability to control later in life.
In my observation, weight gain, in particular, does seem to be more pronounced with those that have disabilities as they age. Of course, not everyone with a disability gains weight or has any visible signs that they may be unhealthy, but that is one of the simplest visible signs of a potential health imbalance. Regardless of how someone looks, there are several items to consider when doing a self-assessment of health and wellness for individuals with disabilities.
Steps You Can Take
1. Begin with the basics and what you already know of the individual. Look at sleeping, nutrition, and level of physical activity each day.
Sleeping: Chart his or her sleep schedule for at least a week regardless of whether or not you think you know it already. It may surprise you to know how much sleep is being gained or lost each day. Sleep is essential for all of us to function at optimum level.
Nutrition: Eating and drinking are also important to chart if you don’t already know how much and what kinds of foods and drinks are being ingested. Even with dietary restrictions, there are always adjustments that can be made to either food, drink, or both to begin to address health concerns and balance essential functions at the cellular level. Remember that your body is smart and does what it needs to do with food and drink once it goes into the body, but it cannot select the items that go into it automatically, only the individual can do that with or without support.
Physical Activity: Normal level of activity each day is also critical to know. Unless movement is so severely restricted that moving is an impossibility, most individuals have at least limited control over their limbs and have the power to move them. If there is little to no physical activity in their lives, adding even 10 minutes each day will be incredibly helpful to overall health. Remember that in the area of physical activity for the purpose of health and wellness maintenance, consistency is more important than volume. Exercise performed each day for a relatively short amount of time or with fewer total repetitions is better than using one day to perform an incredibly long workout or exhaustive repetitions.
The Individual: You know several of the characteristics of the person you care about. Keep those characteristics at the front of your mind when supporting this individual to begin to make changes in these basic health and wellness categories.
2. What, if anything, motivates the individual? It will be tough to stick with any schedule, especially exercise if the person is not motivated by something or someone. You must identify a motivating item or force that will fuel that person to stick with a schedule. Individuals who seem to have no motivation whatsoever are the most challenging to work with, but it is possible, sometimes with great effort, to find something that can be used as an incentive. If the individual loves video games or computer time, limit access to those activities with the option to earn them back with appropriate choices and activities that promote a healthy lifestyle.
3. Find the fun in community activities. Participate in organized events such as Special Olympics or a 5k run/walk. Choose to become a more visible part of the community by contacting the local YMCA. If assistance is needed to participate or to access transportation, contact nonprofit organizations like Including Kids and ask questions. These organizations may not provide the specific services that the individual needs, but they may know someone who does.
There are many adaptive physical education teachers in the area that have great experience and ideas for those that need to modify exercise routines due to limited mobility and/or coordination. The city of Houston has accessible programs that are available to individuals with disabilities. Local colleges and universities are usually great resources to contact with questions about programs that are available to the disability population.
Hopefully, this post has given you a few different ways to think about the disability experience and health and wellness. With time, there will be more access for individuals with disabilities to be fully included in all areas of their respective communities. We will continue to work on ways to better serve individuals with disabilities both presently and in the future.
Joel C. Johnson is a Certified Rehabilitation Counselor and serves as the Assistant Community Outreach Director for Including Kids. He has six years experience working with young adults with autism and enjoys the uniqueness of this disability population. Joel worked at Utah State University as an assistant track and field coach for several years and as the coordinator of the EmployAbility clinic for nearly two years, helping to develop a program placing individuals with autism and other disabilities into competitive employment. He understands educational, public, private, for profit, and nonprofit business work environments and cultures. He is dedicated to providing the highest quality services to his clients and their families, and is an advocate for individuals with disabilities to experience full community inclusion.