Advancing Health Equity For People With Intellectual And Developmental Disabilities

By Dr. Craig Escudé  |  Oct. 20, 2022   |  7.5 Minute Read

As published on Health Affairs Forefront 

There are numerous health inequities for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD). They experience lower rates of preventive screening; higher rates of obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease; lower life expectancy; and higher rates of pregnancy complications. If that’s not enough, they have been at nearly six times greater risk of dying from COVID-19.

What is driving these disparities?

There are a number of contributing factors, including unconscious bias against people with disabilities, physical access barriers, and inequities due to unmet social determinants of health, to name a few. But there is one area where health care policymakers and leaders can have an immediate impact for the 10 to 16 million people with IDD in the US. That is: by educating the health care workforce to meet the needs of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

I started practicing in this hidden and unknown field of medicine in the late 1990s. As medical director for a large, state-run program for people with IDD, I was put in charge of the health care of several hundred people with severe and profound levels of intellectual and developmental disabilities. At first, I thought, “No worries, it’s just like any other area of general practice.” But it was only a matter of a few days before I realized how ill-prepared I was, even as a board-certified family physician, to meet these individuals’ health care needs.

Educating physicians, nurse practitioners, physician assistants, nurses, physical and occupational therapists, dentists, and other clinicians is paramount to reducing health inequities for people with IDD. And I’m not the only one saying this. According to the 2022 National Council on Disability’s Health Equity Framework for People with Disabilities, “comprehensive disability clinical-care curricula [should be required] in all US medical, nursing and other healthcare professional schools.”

Most clinicians are not taught the clinical diagnostic skills to accurately diagnose and develop treatment plans for people with IDD. Yes, most clinicians are trained to take care of many of the specific medical conditions that people with IDD may experience, such as aspiration pneumonia, bowel impaction, seizures, gastroesophageal reflux, and the like. But the greatest gap in training lies in teaching students how these conditions often have different presenting signs and symptoms in people with IDD.


Diagnostic Overshadowing

Michael is a 35-year-old man with a severe level of intellectual disability who lives in a group home. He begins to become aggressive throughout the day, wakes up at night yelling, finds various objects on the floor, and starts eating them. Initially, it is noted by his support staff that the aggression seems to occur at or just after mealtime, but after a few weeks, the behavior worsens and starts occurring before mealtimes and at bedtime. An untrained clinician might very easily attribute these changes to the fact that Michael has an intellectual disability, and “that is just what people with IDD do.” They might even recommend that he be started on a psychotropic medication or sleep aid due to the agitation, aggression, and insomnia.

Such circumstances are often described as “diagnostic overshadowing”—any situation in which a clinician reflexively attributes a person’s symptoms or behavior to their disability instead of looking for treatable underlying medical causes. It was the recent focus of a June 2022 Joint Commission Sentinel Event Alert, which states that “individuals with disabilities are at greater risk of diagnostic overshadowing” and that “the potential of diagnostic overshadowing presents added risk to individuals with disabilities.”

How would Michael’s symptoms and behaviors be treated by someone educated and experienced in providing health care for people with IDD?

With the right training, a clinician would be far more likely to recognize that Michael may be agitated before and around mealtimes because he is experiencing pain associated with gastroesophageal reflux. He is waking up yelling at night because reflux symptoms often occur more frequently when a person is lying down. He is exhibiting pica behavior—that is, eating things that are not food—because every time he swallows, he washes the acid back down. A trained clinician would be far more likely to prescribe an acid-reducing medication to treat the underlying condition, instead of a psychotropic medication that would do nothing for the reflux and could likely make things worse.

To address diagnostic overshadowing, it is essential to educate clinicians about common presentations of treatable medical illness in people with IDD, medication management, and The Fatal Five conditions that are the top causes of preventable morbidity and mortality in people with IDD. In addition, education should highlight physical and nutritional supports, co-occurring mental illness, vitamin D deficiency, differences in dementia presentations, and other challenges that are unique to caring for people with IDD.


Looking Forward

Where do we go from here?

  1. First, policymakers must encourage local hospitals and clinicians’ offices to provide training on caring for people with IDD to their clinical staff.
  2. Second, medical schools, nursing schools, and other health professional training programs should incorporate mandatory disability-competent training for their students.
  3. Third, we must raise awareness among clinicians and health system leaders about IDD-related resources and training options for their staff through such associations as the American Academy of Developmental Medicine and Dentistry, the Developmental Disabilities Nurses Association, the Institute for Exceptional Care, and such resources as the Curriculum in IDD Healthcare.
  4. Fourth, legislators and medical societies should also promote or require education in this area.
  5. Finally, managed care organizations should also provide training to their health teams about this important aspect of health care.

With better education of the health care workforce, anyone, with or without a disability, will be able to present to any clinician’s office or hospital and receive at least a basic level of competent and compassionate health care—a good start toward health equity for all.

Who knows best what’s right for me? Me or You?


By Dr. Craig Escudé, MD, FAAFP, FAADM
Published by Helen: The Journal of Human Exceptionality Issue No. 5 – October 2022, pg 36

Who knows best what’s right for me? Me or You? The answer is likely both, depending on the situation. If I’m looking for a job that is fulfilling to me, while I might listen to suggestions from others, I’m really the best person to make that decision. If I’m trying to decide if the degree of heart blockage I have is best treated with medications or surgery, I’ll be listening to the cardiologist for that one, for sure. Abilities and support for decision-making of people differ immensely, and with that comes varying capacities to make what most might consider “good” choices in life. Person-centered support is about helping discern the proper balance between what is important FOR a person and what is important TO a person.

For people with IDD who are receiving supports and services, at least in my experience, the type of support provided is usually more heavily weighted on what is important FOR the person, leaving less room for the person to be able to make decisions and choices in their own lives that are important TO them that will help them lead more fulfilling lives. It’s often easy to understand why, especially in the name of keeping people safe. But an interesting finding published by the Council on Quality and Leadership in 2019 showed that when people have more meaningful work and activity choices in their lives, the number of “challenging behaviors” goes down by a whopping 74 percent. When we have the ability and choice to do things that are important TO each of us, we are more likely to be content with our lives and less likely to be agitated by having to do mostly what others think is right for us. It just makes sense.

Examples of things that we might consider to be “Important FOR” someone include: not smoking, eating healthy, exercising, finding gainful employment, safe driving skills, regular health check-ups, and the like.

Examples of things that fit into the “Important TO” a person category include: choices relating to what they like to eat, where they want to work, what friends they enjoy the company of, what hobbies they prefer, and even the color their room is painted.

Sometimes there are choices that are made that may be important TO someone that are clearly not best FOR them. Smoking, excessive alcohol use, and never exercising are a few examples of these. But many people, with or without disabilities, make choices that are not always best FOR them.

How do we balance supporting people with IDD to do what is good FOR them while supporting their right to make choices for themselves that may not be best FOR them?

Guess what? If this has been a struggle for you as a parent, family member, or employed supporter of a person with IDD, there are actual skills you can learn to help give a person positive control over their lives while assisting them in maintaining a safe lifestyle.

By participating in formal person-centered thinking training, people can learn skills to help them balance safety with choice, protection with freedom, and security with autonomy when supporting people with IDD. Even for people who might communicate in ways other than using words, there are  Person-Centered Thinking skillsets that can be learned that can help supporters identify what brings someone joy in their life.

Skills such as…

  • Good Day/Bad Day and the Rituals and Routines help one discover what brings meaning to a person’s life in a way that works much better than just making a simple list.
  • The Donut skill helps one to maintain focus, clarify expectations, and establish boundaries.
  • The Relationship Map skill helps to identify what relationships are of the most value to a person.
  • The Learning Log skill helps keep track of data whenever a person has a new experience.
  • And the 4+1 is a person-centered skill that captures four key pieces of information to guide a positive next step when helping a person problem-solve.

Person-Centered Thinking skills help those who provide support understand their roles and responsibilities to keep people moving in a direction that is more autonomous and important TO them without sacrificing what is important FOR them, like safety, security, and health.

Visit our Person-Centered Thinking Training Schedule webpage to learn more about person-centered thinking and find a class that fits your schedule. It might be just the thing needed to bring balance to life for both people with IDD and those who support them.


Bright, Well-Educated, Strong Work History, But Still Looking for Meaningful Employment


By Lorene Reagan, RN, MS – Dir. of Public Relations, IntellectAbility

In recognition of National Disability Employment Awareness Month, we interviewed Curtis Glover, who holds a Bachelor’s degree in Game Art and Development and is an accomplished graphic artist, public speaker, fundraiser, photographer, disability advocate, and Shaolin Kempo Black Belt. He has a video game collection that dates back to the 1970s and all of the games still work.

Recently Curtis completed an internship at an augmented reality (AR) technology firm and produced over 150 different 3-D models. Others in the internship produced, on average, 20-30 models. His graphic artwork is featured on the T-shirts for Chaos and Kindness, Recycled Percussion’s Emmy-nominated TV show, which focuses on giving back to others and making a difference around the world. Curtis is intelligent, well-educated, easy to talk to, impeccably groomed, and has a strong employment history in retail. Yet he is still struggling to find meaningful employment in his field of study.


Why is this?

It may be because Curtis lives with autism, but he is quick to point out that he describes himself as “living with a different ability.” According to the US Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics August 2022 News Release, there are 11.2 million job openings in the United States, yet many people with disabilities are still struggling to secure and maintain meaningful employment.

Why is this, and what can be done? 

Many talented and highly qualified people with disabilities continue to be shut out of the workplace because of barriers, including a lack of education and awareness about how best to support people with disabilities in the workplace, outdated ideas about the impact of potential accommodations that might be needed, unfounded concerns about productivity and unconscious disability bias. 

According to Curtis, employers could begin to break these barriers down by starting with three basic considerations for developing and maintaining a competent, diverse, creative, profitable, and committed workforce:

  1. First, consider how screening practices that use artificial intelligence (AI) can negatively impact and inadvertently screen out people with certain disabilities. Curtis has submitted over 80 applications in response to online job postings for which he is qualified and received only two responses.
  2. Next, support employees living with autism by providing kind, respectful, timely, and concrete feedback and, when necessary, recommendations for how they can improve their job performance. This is particularly important because success in the workplace is highly dependent upon what is referred to as “soft skills” and, according to Curtis, “social skills and the ability to ‘read’ people can be hard for people living with autism.”
  3. Finally, Curtis would like employers to simply “get to know me and give me a chance to share my skills.” In his own words, “when I set my mind to something, I focus on it until it is done. I am loyal and will work hard to meet your company’s goals”.

There are literally millions of people like Curtis who live with autism and are actively seeking meaningful employment. If you are an employer looking to hire some great talent, why not reach out during National Disability Employment Awareness Month to explore how people with autism can contribute to your company’s success?

About Curtis Glover

If you’d like to get to know Curtis and learn about how his digital artistry and graphic design skills could benefit your organization, you can find him on LinkedIn, and you can email him at curtisglover99 (at)