National Workshop for Canadian Women with Disabilities

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To address concerns with urban environments

by GAIL LUSH, with assistance from FRAN ODETTE, Education Wife Assault
From the National Network on Environments and Women’s Health

While health services and programs have tended to focus on biological aspects of Canadian’s health needs, there is increasing recognition of how a range of social and economic factors affect our health. No one understands this better than the women and men whose opportunities for health have been negatively affected by inaccessible barriers to safe and affordable housing, transportation, education and training, and the goods and services that promote wellness.

In the past decade, research related to the health status of women with disabilities has been carried out by the women themselves, and is beginning to bring to light the ways in which health care providers and policy makers can meet the full range of their needs and concerns.

Women with disabilities living in urban environments are particularly concerned about how the organization of city spaces (where they live, work and seek services) affect their health and well-being. While well-populated communities can offer greater options for employment, entertainment, education and health services, discriminatory attitudes toward women with disabilities have a disappointing impact on their desire to benefit from these opportunities, and fully participate in urban life.

In a recent consumer survey, Canadian women with disabilities indicate that they face a range of physical, environmental, attitudinal, communication and structural barriers to health care and services (Council of Canadians with Disabilities, 2004). As Fran Odette from Education Wife Assault says, "one of the issues impacting the health of women living with disabilities (WWD) is the lack of accessible services that focus on all facets of sexual health, including reproduction. Oftentimes, many of us do not get our annual pap tests because of inaccessible examination tables or the assumption by practitioners that wwd are 'asexua' and therefore, at less risk for gynecological concerns or STIs."

Many of the disability-related barriers to health services are further compounded by factors, such as ageism, heterosexism, cultural discrimination, language barriers, racism and barriers to employment.

Since 1996, the National Network on Environments and Women’s Health (NNEWH), housed at York University in Toronto, has been coordinating projects between community representatives and academic researchers that promote equitable access to health services for women. NNEWH is currently one of four Centres of Excellence for Women’s Health that is supported by the Bureau of Women’s Health and Gender Analysis to increase knowledge and understanding of women’s health, and to ensure that the health system is responsive to women’s needs and concerns.

Over the next three years, NNEWH will continue to work for change by collaborating with women with disabilities, including researchers, policy makers, and disability activists on a three-phase project entitled Urban Women’s Health and Disabilities. This project will provide women with disabilities across Canada a clear and strong voice in the strategies, supports and policy responses needed to remove health care barriers in urban environments.

To carry out Phase I, NNEWH has been awarded a Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) workshop grant through the Institute of Gender and Health. This grant will allow the Network to organize a national, virtual workshop, where women with disabilities can discuss health barriers well beyond issues about physical accessibility. This workshop will be conducted in French and English through the use of web-based technology on Enablelink, maintained by the Canadian Abilities Foundation.

In the autumn of 2005, project participants will be invited to log on to real-time chat rooms and message boards from their home computers and community access sites. Four main focal areas of the discussion will include reproductive health services, primary health services (e.g., general practitioners, hospitals and clinics), mental health services and health services related to violence and abuse.

Women interested in participating will be mailed a package, prior to the workshop, containing information about the overall project, a consent form, an evaluation form about the project, and a short survey to help team leaders identify and establish access needs for participation.

Outreach efforts for workshop participation will be inclusive of all women with disabilities including, but not limited to, racialized women, Francophone women, women contending with mental health issues, women who are deaf, deafened, or hard of hearing, and transgendered women.

Discussions between women with disabilities in the workshop will help the team identify the issues and questions needed to plan the research for Phase II. Recommendations based on the final results will be launched publicly during Phase III, and communicated through policy briefs, press releases, quarterly updates in Abilities Magazine, community and academic publications, and presentations to key stakeholders in the health sector.

For information about this project or to learn how to become involved, contact Sandra Kerr at skerr@yorku.ca or (416) 736-2100, ext. 20715. Or visit NNEWH’s website at www.yorku.ca/nnewh

An earlier version of this article appeared in Abilities magazine (Spring 2005).