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Landmark study finds adult Delawareans with disabilities in only 'fair to poor health'

One of every seven adult Delawareans has at least one disability, and the general health of these residents with disabilities is only “fair” to “poor,” according to a landmark study conducted by University of Delaware researchers.

The two-year study, one of the first to assess the health of Delaware adults with all types of disabilities, including physical, sensory, cognitive, and learning impairments, is a key component of the Healthy Delawareans with Disabilities 2010 Project of Delaware Health and Social Services' Division of Developmental Disabilities Services.

The study's findings and recommendations are published in the 56-page Delaware Health Status Report for Persons with Disabilities, which will now serve as a tool for state agencies, policy makers, community organizations, health-care providers and families to improve the welfare of the state's adults with disabilities.

“For the first time, we have an understanding of the health status of adults with disabilities in Delaware,” Ilka Riddle, a researcher at UD's Center for Disabilities Studies, said. Riddle, who received her doctorate in human development and family studies at UD, coordinated the project, which involved several of the center's faculty and staff, as well as policy specialists at UD's Center for Applied Demography and Survey Research.

“The results of this study show that the health of Delaware adults with disabilities is not in a good state, and there are services that are needed to help these citizens live healthier lives than they are currently,” Riddle noted.

The study's 339 participants were recruited from state service enrollment lists, health-care facilities and health fairs. The majority (70 percent) were from New Castle County, with 19 percent from Kent County and nearly 11 percent from Sussex County. Most were unemployed or unable to work and earned less than $15,000 per year.

The participants were asked a series of survey questions by trained interviewers. Among the findings of most concern, Riddle said, were the number of respondents (72 percent) who reported that they are overweight or obese. Almost 50 percent do not engage in any type of physical activity, and most do not eat the daily amount of fruits and vegetables recommended by the Centers for Disease Control.

Additionally, the respondents had a higher incidence of secondary health conditions, including high cholesterol (47 percent), high blood pressure (45 percent), arthritis (40 percent) and diabetes (21 percent) than the general Delaware population.

Perhaps most troubling, nearly a third (31 percent) of the women responding to questions about sexual assault indicated that they had been sexually assaulted or had experienced an attempted sexual assault (27 percent). The perpetrators included acquaintances, neighbors, former significant others and strangers.

“These data are of great concern,” Riddle said, “and we are examining this information very closely.”

While the survey identified a number of serious issues requiring attention, there also were some bright spots, according to Riddle.

"Most of the respondents receive preventative health care,” she noted. “And the majority reported that they are not treated differently by others, which is a plus.”

Almost all of the respondents (97 percent) have a primary health-care provider, and 91 percent receive regular check-ups. However, a number of respondents also reported challenges to obtaining health care, including lack of transportation (16 percent), difficulty accessing buildings where health care is provided (11 percent), cost (10 percent), access to health-care equipment (9 percent) and unavailability of health-care services (6 percent).

A large majority of respondents (80 percent) indicated they are “very satisfied” or “satisfied” with their lives, while almost 20 percent are “dissatisfied” or “very dissatisfied.”

Individuals with mental health conditions reported the highest percentage (32 percent) of dissatisfaction. They also feel they are treated differently by others in comparison to the majority of survey respondents who do not feel they are being singled out because of their disability.

“Although they were the smallest group in our survey, the individuals with mental health conditions stood out as the most unhealthy physically and emotionally,” Riddle said. “They definitely have some needs regarding an improved quality of life.”

Caregivers play a critical role in the lives of Delawareans with disabilities. Nearly two-thirds of the respondents indicated they need help with routine tasks such as household chores and shopping, and about a third require assistance with eating, bathing and dressing.

Most caregivers are family members, and about a third are paid professional staff. Of the 66 caregivers who were present during the interviews, almost 40 percent indicated that caregiving responsibilities do not leave enough time for themselves, are a financial burden (22 percent) and are stressful (12 percent).

All the findings and 14 recommendations in health education and awareness are published in the project's final report.

The report also is providing important data for the Delaware State Implementation Project for Preventing Secondary Conditions and Promoting the Health of People with Disabilities, which is now under way at UD's Center for Disabilities Studies. Riddle is the project's director, and James Salt is the principal investigator. The project is funded by the Centers for Disease Control.

Tracey Bryant | EurekAlert!
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