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Universal Access to Healthcare: Tackling the Unique Callenges of Canadians with Disabilities as Seniors Population Rises

In the province of Alberta alone, the population of seniors is expected to increase by 50% within 10 years. The significant increase in the population of seniors means it is more important than ever to make adaptations to physical environments and transportation so that they are accessible to people with differing levels of independence and who use mobility aids such as walkers, wheelchairs, scooters and canes.

As Canada’s population of seniors continues to rise, barrier-free design is becoming increasingly important. Currently, one in five Canadians (of all ages) identifies as having a disability. Canadian companies are beginning to recognize this need for accessibility and are taking steps to address it; for example, Sean Crump is CEO of Universal Access, a consultant team based in Calgary. Working with companies and organizations, they strive to create barrier-free access for all Canadians. They are tackling not just the spatial layout of physical spaces, but social inclusion and bottom-line business impacts as well.

Principles of universal design also need to be applied to health care. Thirty-two percent of people with disabilities experience physical barriers in accessing health care. They also encounter difficulties that are systemic, attitudinal and related to expertise. Seniors with disabilities have reported difficulty in finding doctors who are well versed in issues related to both aging and disability; often, they can find someone with expertise in one area or the other but not both. People with disabilities can often be perceived as being more challenging as patients because of their disability, which may affect their ability to access certain aspects of health care, such as securing a family doctor.

According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, some recommendations for ensuring health care accessibility include the following: provide open floor space free of physical barriers, build counters and service windows low enough to accommodate wheelchair users, use alarm systems that can be seen and heard, ensure that some of the health care professionals and other staff at a given location can use sign language or provide patients with access to  interpreters, make videos with closed captioning for the hard of hearing, and offer print materials and signs with large fonts for people with low vision as well as Braille.

A recent article in the Canadian Journal of Disability Studies states, “Health care is a human right yet access barriers to health care remain one of the major challenges among people with disabilities. One of the several reasons accounting for this is that there is little evidence on access to healthcare among people with disabilities.”

In March 2018, the House of Commons Standing Committee on Human Resources, Skills and Social Development and the Status of Persons with Disabilities (the HUMA Committee) released a report entitled Advancing Inclusion and Quality of Life for Seniors. The Canadian Medical Association (CMA) participated in the study that led to this report; one of the themes was tools for aging in place, such as age-friendly communities designed with barrier-free inclusivity in mind. A vital part of age-friendly communities is equitable access to healthcare for seniors, free of physical obstacles and inclusive of all levels of ability.