Photo of Kara with a blood pressure monitor on her arm.

Know Your Rights as a Wheelchair User When You Visit the Doctor

Many people have a MAJOR misconception that doctors and their staff are well-versed in how to treat people with disabilities. Many people also wrongly believe that doctors’ offices and clinics are accessible to people with disabilities, including wheelchair users. Even 33 years after the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act, neither of these presumptions is true. The discrimination that people with disabilities experience in the medical field is known as medical ableism. It’s the wrongful assumption that we live an inferior life and are therefore less deserving of quality healthcare. This type of ableism can come out in many different ways, like dismissing symptoms, refusing to provide accommodations, and making assumptions about a person’s quality of life. Knowing your rights as a patient is one way to protect yourself against medical ableism.

Your doctor must offer “reasonable modifications.”

A reasonable modification means a change to a procedure, part of the clinic, or policy to accommodate a person with a disability. This might mean making space for a service dog or removing a chair to make more room for a patient in a power wheelchair. One of my doctor’s offices makes sure to book me in a specific room because it’s the only room with an adjustable exam table. While most patients transfer to an exam table independently, a patient who is a wheelchair user might need assistance from a trained staff member, a lift, or a support person they brought with them. All of these options could be a reasonable modification to what’s usual practice for that clinic. Doctors should not deny services to a patient who uses a wheelchair simply because they cannot transfer to the clinic’s inaccessible exam table.

Your doctor should speak to you.

Many patients with disabilities have reported they don’t feel like their doctor listens or understands them. Some doctors may speak to a support person in the room rather than the patient. You should expect clear, direct communication from your doctor. Doctors receive little to no training in most medical schools for how to engage with patients with disabilities. If you notice your doctor is avoiding direct communication, you can say something like, “Please speak to me about my medical history or decisions about treatment.”

Take care of yourself.

People with disabilities need the same preventative services that nondisabled people should access regularly, but they are far less likely to get them. When screenings are missed, conditions like cancer can be much more difficult or impossible to treat because they are caught too late. These are issues of life and death. Despite the obstacles, barriers, and even medical ableism, it is imperative that people with disabilities make those appointments for preventative healthcare and attend them! Find out if you’re up to date on your preventative care. See you at the doctor’s office!

Written By: Kara Ayers