by Sarah Levis

Disabled people in several American cities are going without specialist care because of medical facilities that aren’t physically accessible, says a study that recently appeared in the Annals of Medicine.

According to the Americans with Disabilities Act, it’s illegal for a medical service provider to turn away someone because of physical disability. Yet in Boston alone, more than one in six doctors refused to schedule appointments for people posing as patients in wheelchairs. Similar findings were reported in three other cities. The study reported similar findings in in Houston, Texas, Dallas, Texas, and Portland, Oregon. The study reported similar findings in in Houston, Texas, Dallas, Texas, and Portland, Oregon. The percentage of people posing as disabled patients that got turned away varied by city and by specialty, but it got disturbingly high – 44% of gynecologists across the four cities informed the undercover patients that they needed to go to another doctor.

The top reasons for turning people away seemed to be location in an inaccessible building or a lack of equipment to assist with lifting and/or transferring someone out of a wheelchair.  “Many doctors may not be aware that they that they need to see patients with disabilities,” study leader Dr. Tara Lagu told The Boston Globe.

This lack of awareness has potentially life-changing implications for disabled people who miss mammograms, Pap smears, and vital care to manage ongoing health concerns because they are turned away by doctors. Wheelchair user Karen Schneiderman allegedly had her ovarian cyst removed at Beth Israel Medical Center in Boston as her surgeon lay on the floor, as the bed onto which she was transferred was too low to allow the surgeon to operate and could not be raised.

Beth Israel says that no complaints of such an incident were received.

In fact, Beth Israel, Massachusetts General, and Brigham and Women’s Hospitals have actively been trying to prove accessibility by physically upgrading buildings, purchasing adaptive equipment and providing staff training. None of this changes the fact, however, that doctors that refuse to see patients in wheelchairs because their offices aren’t accessible (30% in in Houston, 27% in Dallas, 17% in Boston, and 14% in Portland) are breaking federal law. Unfortunately, the law doesn’t provide a specific list of accommodations and modifications that doctor’s offices should make. A government-convened panel of specialists will hopefully remedy this issue over the summer, as resolving this issue is proving challenging enough.

Particularly so in hospitals, where, in Boston, “the challenge has been trying to change the culture,” Bill Henning, executive director of the  Boston Center for Independent Living, told The Boston Globe, “They’re big institutions, and there’s still a lot of work to be done.”

“The medical community hasn’t understood the importance of equal access,”

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