Hesperian Health Guides
Chapter 6: Health exams
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Many people think a disabled woman’s only health concern is her disability and that she needs no other health examinations. But this is not true. Checkups with a health worker every 2 to 3 years, even if you feel fine, are an important way for a woman to find health problems early, when they can best be treated.
Women with disabilities often have a hard time getting exams. You may not want to get exams because you have grown up feeling ashamed of your body. Or you may not want anyone to touch your body. Or you may already have had so many exams and operations that you do not want to see another health worker.
But because regular exams are just as important for women with disabilities as they are for all women, learn as much as possible about them from this book and other resources. Then you can ask local health workers—and demand of hospital directors and ministers of health—to make these services available to you and other women with disabilities.
What regular health exams can tell you
There are many health problems that regular health checkups can find. Sometimes a person can be sick and not realize it until the problem has become very serious and difficult to treat or cure. Some of the health problems that can be helped if they are found early are: anemia (weak blood), tuberculosis (TB), HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted infections, malaria, some cancers, high blood pressure, worms and other intestinal parasites, and diabetes. Any woman, whether or not she has a disability, can have these problems.
Bringing health exams to the community
Lizzie Longshaw knew that most disabled women in her community in Zimbabwe never got pelvic or breast exams. Clinics that were accessible were too far away and too expensive for disabled women. But she knew how important these exams were
for women with disabilities. Because exams were not easy to get, many women did not learn about their health problems until it was too late and many died from cancer.
Lizzie, who is herself disabled, called together a group of women with disabilities. Together, they learned as much as they could about cancer and other health problems, and about how exams can help all women by finding problems early. The group then persuaded a representative from the Ministry of Health to meet with them about the health problems disabled women face. They explained how disabled women had trouble traveling to clinics and paying for health services. The representative was so impressed with how much the women had learned, he arranged for the government to provide a free, mobile clinic once a month to provide cancer screening and family planning services for disabled women in that community.
Two of the most important regular exams a woman should get are breast exams and pelvic exams. Two common cancers women develop are in their breasts and cervix, and these tests can help identify and treat them early.
How to prepare for breast and pelvic exams
You can prepare for a breast or pelvic exam by knowing ahead of time what is going to happen. Ask the health worker to talk about each step of the exam and to explain anything you do not understand. It may help to think in advance of questions to ask her.
tell me how you will examine my breasts?
As a woman with a disability, you may have different needs during the exams. If possible, take a friend or family member who can stay with you the whole time. Talk with the health worker about your specific needs before the exam so she can do them in a way that is safer and easier for you.
If you are deaf or cannot hear well, bring a friend with you who can use sign language to help you communicate with the health worker.
If you are blind or cannot see well, bring a friend to explain and describe the exams. Ask the health worker to carefully explain what she is doing and what you cannot see.
If you have a mobility-related disability or cannot walk well, bring a friend, or plan ahead how to enter the clinic or health center.
If you have trouble understanding or learning, and the breast or pelvic exam makes you frightened, nervous, or uncomfortable, ask for someone you trust to stay with you during the exam.
Family members and caregivers can help women who have disabilities that affect learning or understanding:
- Talk about the exams in advance. A family member or friend can explain the exams to a woman who has trouble learning. Help her understand that these exams are important for her to be healthy. Describe what will happen during the exams and answer her questions. If you can, tell her who will do the exams.
- Visit the clinic before the exams, if possible. The day before the exams, try to go with her to the place where the exams will be done.
- Have someone she trusts go with her. If she wants, a friend or family member can stay with her during the exams. If the health worker who does the exams is a man, make sure a woman she trusts stays with her the whole time.
Health workers can help: