People with intellectual disability in Australia usually have higher levels of health-care need than the general population. However, they often have reduced or impeded access to health-care services (Lennox & Edwards, 2001) and experience significantly worse health outcomes and lower life expectancies as a result (Lennox & Simpson, 2011). Communication problems are central to the differences in health status for people with an intellectual disability, and many mainstream health-care providers are limited in their capacity to support the complex health-care needs of this group. This may be due to the past institutionalisation of many people with intellectual disability, where institution-based care was the norm and mainstream services were not expected to develop their capacity to provide health care for people with intellectual disability (Lennox & Edwards, 2001).
Lennox and Edwards (2001) cite some of the common health problems that Australians with intellectual disability experience at greater rates than the rest of the population:
- Visual impairment and eye problems
- Hearing and communication disorders
- Cardiovascular disease
- Spinal abnormalities
- Skin conditions
- Obesity and under-nutrition
- Nutrition and digestive disorders
- Dental problems due to poor nutrition and oral hygiene
- Mental illness.
Both individual factors (such as communication barriers) and systemic factors (such as the under-developed capacity of mainstream medical services) play a big role in determining the physical health and well-being of people with disabilities. But a complex array of social factors also contribute to their health-care disadvantage – including poverty, social isolation, homelessness, domestic and family violence, criminal victimisation and criminal justice system involvement.