The Health of People with Disabilities 3. 3. 1

Author: Jasna Vešligaj-Damiš

Keywords: health condition, disability

An individual’s health status is crucial for experiencing a better quality of life, independence and full participation in society. The central mission of public health is to improve the health of all inhabitants. It can be observed that, compared to the general population, individuals with disabilities often have worse health and higher levels of chronic illnesses, such as diabetes, obesity and depression. At the same time, we can see that persons with disabilities are less involved in organized preventive health activities and often develop a less healthy lifestyle. (Kasser, Lytle, 2013)

Over a billion people are estimated to live with some form of disability. This corresponds to about 15% of the world’s population. Between 110 million (2.2%) and 190 million (3.8%) people 15 years and older have significant difficulties in functioning. Furthermore, the rates of disability are increasing in part due to ageing populations and an increase in chronic health conditions (“WHO: Disability and health”, 2019).

Disability is extremely diverse. While some health conditions associated with disability result in poor health and extensive health care needs, others do not. However all people with disabilities have the same general health care needs as everyone else, and therefore need access to mainstream health care services. Article 25 of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) reinforces the right of persons with disabilities to attain the highest standard of health care, without discrimination (“WHO: Disability and health”, 2019).

In the case of persons with disabilities, a number of health problems can be detected due to secondary health conditions that overlap with their primary disability as they are very susceptible to them. For example, in people with a spinal cord injury or cerebral palsy, a number of secondary health conditions such as osteoporosis, osteoarthritis, increased spasticity, depression, etc. can be detected, and at the same time lower balance, muscular strength, endurance, mobility and general fitness are common. All this can significantly affect their daily activities and the quality of life.

With a good health plan, people with disabilities can improve their health and functionality. A person, who has suffered a spinal cord injury and takes good care of his health, eats well, exercises physically and mentally, goes on regular medical examinations, prevents ulcers and maintains appropriate body weight, will certainly maintain good health. In cases were he/she does not adopt a healthy lifestyle, health will more than likely deteriorate and “unhealthy” habits will be adopted, like smoking, alcohol and drug consumption, which may have additional unwanted consequences.

Because of all that, people with disabilities often have more needs for health services, but are also limited in access to them due to disability (architectural barriers, necessary escorts, communication barriers etc).

In some groups of people with disabilities we can observe that ageing process begins earlier than in the rest of the population. For example some people with developmental disabilities show signs of premature ageing in their 40s and 50s (“WHO: Disability and health”, 2019).

In addition to early ageing, some people with disabilities also notice a higher rate of premature death or lower life expectancy, what is also connected to their general health condition. Overall, the life expectancy of people with mental disorders is increasing (Coppus, 2013), but their health is still worse than in the general population (Emerson et al, 2012), and their life expectancy is still lower than the life expectancy of their peers without disability (Heslop et al., 2013; Hosking et al., 2016).

In the case of individuals with disabilities that belong to specific racial, ethnic and other groups, who have a higher degree of disability and a lower level of participation in the health care system, we see even more health problems. In these groups risky behaviour, such as physical inactivity and obesity are even greater.

It is important that we are aware that the health of people with disabilities is equally important and has equal decisive influence on their quality of life compared with others. It is therefore necessary to provide them with equal opportunities, conditions and access to health services.


Coppus, A.M.W. (2013) People with intellectual disability: what do we know about adulthood and life expectancy? Developmental Disabilities Reviews, 18, 6 – 16

Emerson, E., Baines, S., Allerton, L., Welch, V. (2012) Health Inequalities and People with Learning Disabilities in the UK: 2012, Lancaster: Improving Health and Lives

Heslop, P. Blair, P. Fleming, P., Hoghton, M., Marriott, A., Russ, L. (2013) Confidential Inquiry into Premature Deaths of People with Learning Disabilities, Bristol: Norah Fry Research Centre, University of Bristol

Hosking, F.J., Carey, I.M., Shah, S., Harris, T., DeWilde, S., Beighton, C., Cook, D.G. (2016) Mortality among adults with intellectual disability in England: comparisons with the general population, American Journal of Public Health, d.o.i. 10.2105/AJPH.2016.303240

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