Karen Sullivan

Karen Sullivan is Butte-Silver Bow Health Officer and Director of the Health Department.

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — An inclusive community is one in which all community members are presumed competent, are recruited and welcomed as valued community members, are fully participating and learning with their peers, and are experiencing reciprocal social relationships. An entirely inclusive community would ensure that these elements apply as well to community members living with disabilities.

There is no better place to learn about the entirety of inclusion than Birmingham, Ala., center of the civil rights struggles — after all, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is a federal civil rights law that prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability. Birmingham is where I spent much of last week, in the good company of Todd Hoar, an incredibly kind individual who works as Butte-Silver Bow’s Americans with Disabilities Act coordinator. At the beginning of the conference at which Todd and I learned, organizers handed out customized silicone bracelets labeled “Disability Rights ARE Civil Rights.”

Todd and I were at a place in Birmingham called the Lakeshore Foundation, whose mission is to enable people with physical disability and chronic health conditions to lead healthy, active and independent lifestyles through physical activity, sport, recreation, advocacy, policy and research. The site includes a rehabilitation hospital for people who’ve sustained traumatic brain or spinal cord injuries, and state-of-the-art fitness facilities. The vision of Lakeshore, a designated U.S. Olympic and Paralympic training site, is to improve the lives of people with disability, worldwide.

To be healthy, people living with disability, like the rest of us, must seek physical fitness. Seeking fitness, as well as other wellness options, helps all of us to stave off chronic disease, which is devastating and costly to our country. Today, chronic disease in the United States is responsible for seven of 10 deaths; 75 percent of the $2.5 trillion spent annually on health care in our country is spent on chronic illness — diseases such as diabetes, heart disease, arthritis, asthma and some cancers.

How we’ll fix this is by preventing chronic disease from occurring in the first place. Wellness is key, and what Todd and I learned is that people living with disabilities deserve the same shot at wellness as do the rest of us.

There are roadblocks for people with disabilities. “… Ingrained socioeconomic disadvantages and environmental, programmatic and attitudinal barriers within communities still exist and are now widely recognized as major contributors to health disparities experienced by people with disability,” according to an Inclusive Community Health executive summary issued at the conference, made possible by funding from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Division of Human Development & Disability. The project coming out of the conference is called Reaching People with Disabilities through Healthy Communities, and will be led over the next 16 months by the National Association of Chronic Disease Directors, in partnership with the National Center of Health, Physical Activity and Disability, and the Center on Health Promotion Research at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

Butte-Silver Bow is one of 10 communities nationally that will be facilitating this project. Todd and I will work with many local collaborating agencies and individuals to accelerate disability inclusion policy, systems and environmental improvements that will increase opportunities for healthy eating, physical activity and the prevention of tobacco use for people living with disabilities.

Todd and I will be using a tool called the Community Health Inclusion Index (CHII) to gather information on the extent of healthy living resources in Butte-Silver Bow that are inclusive of all members of the community, including those living with disability. We will not be acting as the ADA police — rather, what we learn through the CHII assessments will eventually be integrated into a community action plan containing strategies to make our community more inclusive for people with disabilities who are seeking to be healthy and well.

“People with disability experience significant barriers when attempting to access health and wellness activities, information and services if those services are not designed to consider their preferences, needs and disability,” according to the executive summary distributed at the conference. “With rates of obesity two to four times higher in children and adults with disability compared to the general population, coupled with the limited federal, state and local resources available for health promotion programs specific to people with disability, there is a compelling rationale for considering alternative methods for promoting health and wellness in populations with the greatest need.”

Hopefully, Todd and I, along with our many partners on this project, will be able to develop those alternative methods for promoting health and wellness, for all in our community.

Butte-Silver Bow, in my view, has always been a community of inclusion. This project, if done well, will take us to the next inclusive level, bringing those living with disabilities along for the healthy ride.

Karen Sullivan is Butte-Silver Bow Health Officer and Director of the Health Department. Her column, The Public's Health, appears weekly on The Montana Standard's health page.

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