Addressing Healthcare Inequities for Persons with Disabilities
11 Jan, 2024

Rachel O’Neale, Country Head at Novartis South Africa


The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that one in six people globally experience a significant disability.1 Worryingly, many of these individuals continue to suffer unmet health needs – especially those living in developing countries such as South Africa, and particularly in impoverished and rural areas.2,3 So, as we resume to our working organisations, it is vital for all sectors of society to join in ensuring that persons with disabilities receive the highest possible standards of healthcare and accommodation, state medical experts at Novartis South Africa.4,5


As the United Nation’s Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities describes: “Persons with disabilities include those who have long-term physical, mental, intellectual or sensory impairments which in interaction with various barriers may hinder their full and effective participation in society on an equal basis with others.”6


Rachel O’Neale, Country Head at Novartis South Africa, notes that this description points to the diverse range of needs that healthcare providers and industry stakeholders must be cognizant of as they work together to eliminate gaps and inequities.


“Creating a more equitable world for persons with disabilities and promoting greater access to healthcare and working opportunities begins by acknowledging and being sensitive to the diverse needs of persons with disabilities. By promoting greater awareness and prioritizing these needs, we can break down the walls impeding people from receiving adequate healthcare, and significantly improve their overall health and life expectancy,” she says.


“O’Neale further adds that 32% of the cohorts that have graduated from the Novartis South Africa Learnership Programme are persons with disabilities. Inclusively creating opportunities for people with disabilities to gain work experience is important to support new graduates and future leaders to find employment in leading organizations such as Novartis.


Healthcare challenges


Notably, persons with disabilities are often more vulnerable to certain comorbidities or health conditions such as depression and obesity which may detract from their well-being.7-9 However, health inequities, or avoidable and unfair factors that negatively impact access to and quality of healthcare can also play a significant role in poor treatment outcomes.1,3,8,9


For example, lack of transportation and high transportation costs can play major roles in preventing persons with disabilities from seeking health services and receiving preventative care or timely diagnoses, especially in rural areas where they may be required to travel further distances to health facilities.2,9-11 Additionally, persons with disabilities often encounter inaccessible healthcare facilities that lack ramps, lifts, wheelchair-accessible doors, bathrooms for individuals with mobility impairments, and tactile signage for people with visual impairments.2,9-11


Healthcare providers also require additional training to become better sensitized to the needs of persons with disabilities and to communicate with and treat them more effectively.2,11-13


In the healthcare industry, this may result in a more holistic approach to accommodating and advocating for their needs. Facilities could, for instance, implement systems to prevent persons with disabilities from being forced to wait in long queues, as this may put these patients under undue physical strain and place added stress on their transportation arrangements – especially if they are dependent on a family member for assistance.11-13


Likewise, this training may help to dispel misunderstandings and myths regarding patients with disabilities among healthcare providers for improved health services. In South Africa, for example, research suggests that some healthcare providers mistakenly believe persons with disabilities to be asexual, preventing patients from receiving the necessary sexual and reproductive education and health services.12,13 This leaves patients with disabilities at greater risk of contracting HIV and sexually transmitted diseases.12,13


Finally, the medical industry must work together to ensure that persons with disabilities receive the necessary communications and information to safeguard their health.


“Both pharmaceutical companies and healthcare providers must join hands to ensure that persons with disabilities fully understand their treatment plans and are able to take their medications as prescribed. This means ensuring that information is available in braille for patients with visual impairments, or digitally for patients with auditory impairments, for example9,12,13,” says O’Neale.


“It’s also important to treat all patients with dignity and respect. When speaking with a person with a disability, this means avoiding patronizing them, listening to their concerns, and communicating clearly.14-16 Through actively engaging with persons with disabilities, we can promote a more equal and tolerable world that provides a high standard of care for all.”





  1. World Health Organization. [Internet]. Global report on health equity for persons with disabilities; 2022 Dec 2 [cited 2023 Oct 31]. Available from:
  2. Vergunst R, Swartz L, Hem K, Mannan H, MacLachlan M, Miji G, Braathen S, Schneider M. BioMed Central [Internet]. Access to health care for persons with disabilities in rural South Africa – BMC Health Services Research; 2017 Nov 17 [cited 2023 Oct 31]. Available from:
  3. Ona A, Athanasios K, Tederko P, Escorpizo R, Arora M, Sturm C, Yang S, Barzallo D. BioMed Central [Internet]. Unmet healthcare needs and health inequalities in people with spinal cord injury: a direct regression inequality decomposition – International Journal for Equity in Health; 2023 Mar 23 [cited 2023 Oct 31]. Available from:
  4. United Nations [Internet]. International Day of Persons with Disabilities, 3 December; 2022 [cited 2023 Oct 31]. Available from:
  5. World Health Organization. [Internet]. International day of persons with disabilities; [cited 2023 Oct 31]. Available from:
  6. United Nations. United Nations Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner [Internet]. Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities; 2006 Dec 12 [cited 2023 Oct 31]. Available from:
  7. World Health Organization. [Internet]. Disability; 2023 Mar 7 [cited 2023 Oct 31]. Available from:
  8. Office of the Surgeon General (US). National Center for Biotechnology Information [Internet]. Health and Wellness for Persons with Disabilities Today – The Surgeon General’s Call to Action to Improve the Health and Wellness of Persons with Disabilities – NCBI Bookshelf; 2005 [cited 2023 Oct 31]. Available from:
  9. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). [Internet]. Disability and Health Information for Healthcare Providers | CDC; 2020 Sep 15 [cited 2023 Oct 31]. Available from:
  10. McKinney EL, McKinney V, Swartz L. PubMed Central (PMC) [Internet]. Access to healthcare for people with disabilities in South Africa: Bad at any time, worse during COVID-19?; 2021 Jul 19 [cited 2023 Oct 31]. Available from:
  11. Hashemi G, Wickenden M, Bright T, and Kuper H. Taylor & Francis Online [Internet]. Barriers to accessing primary healthcare services for people with disabilities in low and middle-income countries, a Meta-synthesis of qualitative studies; 2020 Aug 28 [cited 2023 Oct 31]. Available from:
  12. Kuper H, Hanass-Hancock J. Health Systems Trust [Internet]. Framing the debate on how to achieve equitable health care for persons with disabilities in South Africa; 2020 [cited 2023 Oct 31]. Available from:
  13. Hussey M, MacLachlan M, Mji G. International Journal of Health Policy and Management [Internet]. Barriers to the Implementation of the Health and Rehabilitation Articles of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in South Africa; 2017 Apr 1 [cited 2023 Oct 31]. Available from:
  14. Hunt X. Disability Evidence Portal [Internet]. How do we improve access to healthcare for people with disabilities? – DEP; 2019 Aug [cited 2023 Oct 31]. Available from:
  15. Wigham S, Bourne J, McKenzie K, Rowlands G, Petersen K, Hackett S. BMJ Open [Internet]. Improving access to primary care and annual health checks for people who have a learning disability: a multistakeholder qualitative study; 2022 [cited 2023 Oct 31]. Available from:
  16. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention [Internet]. Communicating With and About People with Disabilities; 2022 Feb 1 [cited 2023 Oct 31]. Available from:



@Rachel O’Neale
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