For me, the highlight of this weekend’s Down Syndrome Affiliates in Action (DSAIA) conference was the presentation is was honored to co-present. For the first time in 18+ months since I first wrote about the racial health disparities that exist in the Ds community, I felt like we might be moving forward.
“While disability affects people of all races, ethnicities, genders, languages, sexual orientations, and gender identities, this does not mean that impairment occurs uniformly among racial and ethnic groups.”
“It is vitally important to distinguish between disability as a natural part of the human condition, and disability-related health disparities that can lead to compromised care, ill health, institutionalization, and premature death. These are not consequences that inevitably follow the simple fact of impairment.”
“In short, the relationship between race and disability is a complex one that needs to be freshly viewed as race and disability together may have a previously unaccounted cumulative impact on creating health disparities.”
“PWD and members of racial minorities often share socio-economic characteristics and related health access barriers due to the expense of maintaining health with a disability. PWD are much more likely to experience various forms of material hardship— including food insecurity, not getting needed medical or dental care, and not being able to pay rent, mortgage, and utility bills—than people without disabilities, even after controlling for income and other characteristics.”
“The importance of appropriately disaggregated data is also raised because the nonhomogenous categories “people with disabilities” and “racial and ethnic minorities” experience different, and often surprising, specific health disparities.”
“People with developmental disabilities are often assumed to have greater access to care as a population that presumably visits care providers all the time, and yet this population experiences high rates of preventable health conditions such as fractures, skin conditions, obesity, poor oral health, and vision, hearing, and mental health problems. A multinational study of 16,000 adults in 12 countries, found that 68 percent falsely believe that people with intellectual disabilities had the same or better health care as the general population.”
“It cannot be assumed that because PWD of color may need more health care services, they actually get that health care easily, or that they receive appropriate health care, especially when additional factors such as coverage limitations, physical inaccessibility and lack of policy modification, and stereotypes are at play. PWD of color or who are members of other minority groups are very likely to be encountering instances and forms of “double discrimination” that no single movement is effectively identifying or actively working to address.”
“While the correlations above are clear, the extent of the connections, the direction of any causative links, and the impact of multiple systemic health barriers in the lives of PWD of color are unknown because little data respecting the interaction of race and disability has been collected and/or analyzed with those connections in mind.”
“The disability and racial minority communities cannot accurately understand how to tackle these myriad barriers and disparities without much more information on how disability and minority cultures and stereotypes, as well as additional variables such as socio-economic status, sexual orientation, and gender coalesce around health and illness.”
October is National Down Syndrome Awareness Month and most parents in the community are contributing in their own way. Some share photos on Facebook and other social media. Some tell stories of their child’s accomplishments or point out those of others. A recent article in the San Diego Union Tribune provided many facts about Down syndrome and introduced readers to some individuals who have surpassed society’s expectations regarding the success that people with the condition are believed to be capable of.
The headline reads “Those with Down syndrome living longer, defying limits” with a subtitle of “Better preventive care adds to quality of life.” To attract those outside of the Down syndrome community, the choice in headlines was obvious: a short synopsis of what has changed. The focus on life expectancy however is misleading.
“Debra Emerson, CEO of El Cajon-based St. Madeleine Sophie’s Center, which educates and empowers people with developmental disabilities, said the life expectancy for those with Down syndrome has risen dramatically in recent decades from age 25 in 1983 to 60 today.”
What the article doesn’t tell readers, and most people don’t know (including those most closely affected) is that those numbers only apply to Caucasians. According to a report published by the Center for Disease Control, the numbers for non-whites are still quite dismal.
According to the findings, the median age at death for people with Down syndrome during the years 1968—1997 varied by racial group. For whites it increased from 2 years in 1968 to 50 years in 1997. For blacks during the same period, the median age at death increased from 0 to 25 and for other racial groups it only rose to 11.
The study is quite old, as research goes, but those involved at the time warned that it should be investigated further.
“However, racial disparity still exists in DS survival, and further study is needed to determine the causes of this disparity…
Additional study is needed to determine why persons with DS die much younger if they are black or of other races than if they are white. Identification of these factors may permit development of interventions to eliminate this racial disparity and further improve the survival of all persons with DS.”
When the study was first published, ABC News looked for a reaction from one of our national organizations.
“The National Down Syndrome Society said the study indicates a “serious disparity that really needs to be addressed.””
“”We always acted on the assumption that there was some kind of socio-economic kind of disparity,” said Jennifer Schell Podoll, a spokeswoman. “But we’re very surprised reading that survey to find out the racial disparity was so stark.””
Researchers involved in a more recent study (2012) had similarly surprising findings when they looked at childhood survival rates rather than overall life expectancy. Non-Hispanic black children with Down syndrome were twice as likely to die during childhood and adolescence compared to Non-Hispanic white children with Down syndrome.
So while the overall outlook for people with Down syndrome is much improved, a large segment of our population is still dying prematurely. Our national organizations have vowed to make this a priority, but the public has not seen any specific details of how that will be done.
Only one voice has risen above the crowd, telling the truth to a national audience. Supermodel Beverly Johnson, first woman of color to be seen on the cover of Vogue magazine in 1974, recently in the media for her involvement in the Bill Cosby scandal, has a cousin who has Down syndrome. When interviewed for last year’s Down syndrome Awareness Month about her position as national spokesperson for Global Down Syndrome Foundation, Ms. Johnson referenced the health disparities that exist.
“”There’s a remarkable disparity between children of color who get Down syndrome — life expectancy is age 23 — and non-black children with Down syndrome — life expectancy is 63 years old,” she said.”
Meanwhile, another awareness campaign is taking place and people are spreading inaccurate information and half-truths in a well-meaning effort to educate the public.
As the founder of an online organization for parents and caregivers of adults who have Down syndrome, and the mother of a bi-racial 28-year-old man who has Down syndrome, this misinformation is maddening and quite frightening. As long as we continue to tout the Caucasian numbers as the whole story we allow the status quo to continue. We cannot be satisfied with this outcome. We cannot present ourselves as advocates for equality and inclusion for people with Down syndrome and other intellectual disabilities and completely ignore the fact that half our population is still dying young!
October is National Down Syndrome Awareness Month and we’re celebrating with our “Different is Cool!” photo campaign!
The photos are geared toward showing the general public that our loved ones are unique individuals with talents and personalities all their own. At the same time, we have some awareness that needs to be raised within our own communities.
This year the annual NDSC convention was held in sunny Phoenix, Arizona. The 100+ degree weather made things outside of the conference venue a bit sticky, but inside everything was “cool.” If I had to sum up my own experience this year I would use these three words: collaboration, friendship, and hope.
As you can see from the picture above, our table in the exhibit hall did triple duty this year – Jennifer Smolka was gracious enough to
share her spot for 321 eLearning with The Road and Marianne from Joey’s Ups with Downs. We all w
ork together throughout the year on webinars and the 321 eConference, and at the NDSC gathering we got to work side by side.
Jennifer, Marianne, Mardra, and I got to be all together in person for the first time!
If he was here, what would Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. say and do about the current issues in our community?
Today, as we celebrate Dr.King’s impact on our world, it’s a good time to reflect on our advocacy in the disability community. Most would agree that MLK would have something to say about the rallies and demonstrations around race and policing. Would he branch out and extend his hand to include the disability community in his work? I think he would. While some question, and even criticize efforts to widen the discussion of improved policing to include other disenfranchised groups, I believe Dr. King would be among the first to emphasize that #AllLivesMatter.