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Promoting good health for people with an intellectual disability

This article explores promoting good health for people with an intellectual disability
Group of people at a lecture theater
© Trinity College Dublin

Another important means of communication for enhancing the health of people with an intellectual disability is through health promotion. As we have learned in Week 1, people with intellectual disabilities experience significant health disparities and health inequities compared to those in the general population.

But, many secondary health conditions, especially those caused by lifestyle behaviour, can be prevented with targeted health promotion.

Health promotion and health education

Health promotion and health education are hugely important to the health of a society and are terms that are used interchangeably. However, health promotion involves a comprehensive approach and targets a variety of people at different levels of the health sector.
It is important to understand the differences between health promotion and health education.
  • Health promotion addresses changes in patterns of health behaviour. The World Health Organization (WHO) defines health promotion as: ‘the process of enabling people to increase control over and improve their health’.
  • Health education provides health information and knowledge to individuals and communities to enhance their skills in adopting overall better health behaviours.

Benefits of health promotion and health education

Health promotion and education can benefit broad sectors of society, and they have many benefits that we need to be aware of. They can:
  • Enable and empower individuals to take responsibility for their health.
  • Improve health outcomes.
  • Enhance the quality of life of individuals whilst addressing health disparities.
  • Shape a healthier future by implementing changes in healthcare delivery in response to people’s needs.
Ultimately, they can improve knowledge and healthcare delivery for people with intellectual disability.

Why consider health promotion differently for people with intellectual disabilities?

In the Ottawa charter, the WHO laid down the fundamental prerequisites of health and the foundational principles for improving health. They noted that strategies for health promotion need to be adapted to local, cultural, economic and individual needs.
Unfortunately, people with intellectual disabilities continue to be excluded from many health promotion programmes and campaigns. This is despite increasing awareness that:
  • People’s health experience can be different and compromised due to pre-existing impairment.
  • People have literacy and communication difficulties, especially in comprehension and expression.
  • Presentation of older age chronic conditions frequently occur much earlier.
  • People often present with different risk factors that impact on overall health.
  • Socio-economic factors impact on their ability to engage and understand health promotion.
  • Educational factors have an impact on health promotion.

Health literacy

Another area that can impact on health promotion is health literacy. People with lower levels of education or with an intellectual impairment are more likely to have challenges with health literacy.
Having low levels of health literacy often means that people are less likely to manage their own health and that they will have lower uptake of prevention strategies and higher uses of medical services, including hospital or emergency care. This will ultimately result in higher healthcare costs.

Promoting health and wellbeing

Health promotion for people with intellectual disabilities should address four fundamental areas.
  • Supporting healthy lifestyle behaviour change.
  • Providing health education for both people with intellectual disability and their carers.
  • Involving people with intellectual disability and their carers as co-producers and collaborators.
  • Ensuring all health promotion is person-centred.
Having strategies that include these components will address the health promotion and health literacy needs within the intellectual disability field.
Given the health inequities people with intellectual disabilities experience, it is critically important that public health and health promotion ensure designs are inclusive of people with intellectual disabilities.

Strategies for improving health promotion

The UN Convention of Human Rights for Persons with Disabilities (2006) notes that all people with disabilities have a fundamental right to health promotion.
The convention states that people with disabilities have a right to enjoy, as attainable as possible, a high standard of health without discrimination.

However despite the benefits of health promotion and education, broadly speaking, people with intellectual disabilities have been left out. Identifying and addressing the health needs of people with intellectual disabilities is an imperative step in addressing the health promotion disparity.

In Week 1, we talked about how people with intellectual disabilities presented with different patterns of disease. So, health-wise, what is important to their non-disabled peers may not be as important in the lives of people with intellectual disabilities.

However, all citizens need to be considered when health promotion is designed and developed. It must be pitched through a medium that is appropriate to the audience. Also, consideration to meet particular needs should be taken when individual or local health promotion campaigns are designed, that is, making reasonable adjustment to the format the health promotion campaign will take.

For example, try using visual medias, plain language, keeping the message clear, concise and simple, and underpinning targeted campaigns with empirical evidence. Next week, we will be learning about Easy Read materials, and how they can be used for both health assessments and health promotion.

Here are some practical strategies that you can implement in your practice:

  • Identifying specific areas of concern within your practice, for example, nutrition or physical activity.
  • Cater for specific levels of intellectual disability and their supporters.
  • Use materials and methods that will reach as many people as possible.
  • Use multiple methods of communication to ensure accessibility, for example, use video, drawings, photos or picture systems.
  • Identify what is appropriate and prioritise information with people with intellectual disabilities.

Share your thoughts

  • Find a health promotion leaflet, video, website or resource from your country or field. For example, this Health Ireland exercise website

  • Is it accessible to a person with an intellectual disability? Why / why not?

© Trinity College Dublin
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Improving Health Assessments for People with an Intellectual Disability

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