The Simon Heng column

I have a friend who is warm and funny; she is passionate about the causes that she has taken up – in fact, she’s enthusiastic about life itself. She always has something to say, so that sometimes it’s difficult to get a word in edgeways. Above all, she hates injustice. She just happens to have bipolar disorder. And a serious heart condition.

Years ago, she told me how she had to struggle to convince everyone that the pains in her chest weren’t imaginary, and the lethargy wasn’t anything to do with her mental condition. She almost wept with the memory of the frustration she felt trying to explain that, just because she was mentally ill it didn’t mean that she couldn’t be physically ill too. She even began to question whether she was really imagining her physical symptoms. It was a relief for her when she was taken seriously.

Another friend, whose cerebral palsy affects his speech and is a wheelchair user, still struggles to communicate with his GP. The doctor will direct questions and remarks to his PA, not the patient. The PA has to remind the doctor that his patient can speak for himself and can understand medical advice. Problems go untreated.

Equal Treatment: Closing the Gap is the report on health inequalities experienced by people with disabilities, sponsored by the Disability Rights Commission. Its findings prove that my friends aren’t alone in struggling to find suitable treatment.

People with learning difficulties and mental health problems in particular are more likely to be denied routine medical checks for conditions such as diabetes, colon cancer and heart conditions, which could shorten their life expectancy by up to 10 years compared with someone without these disabilities.

“They just tend to die younger” has almost been a mantra in some parts of the health service, which was simply a way of avoiding the issue. The new disability equality duty is due in place at the end of this year, and health trusts will have to do a lot of work to close these particular gaps.

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