Surprising Ways Poor Accessibility Affects Mental Health

Contributed by: Jane Sandwood

Photo by Josh Appel on Unsplash

It is estimated that 132 million individuals need mobility assistance via wheelchair. With such a large amount of the population needing mobility help, one might think that wheelchair, walker, and electric scooters are always accommodated, but that’s unfortunately not the case. As a result of poor accessibility, some individuals that rely on the use of wheelchairs and motorized scooters often have additional mental health and wellness issues.

Loneliness and Isolation
It’s difficult to maintain mental wellness when you experience feelings of being left out. Even with innovative modern mobility devices, people with physical limitations often can’t participate in all of the same activities as someone with ‘normal’ physical mobility. A whopping 72% of adults that need mobility devices have experienced at least one barrier that prevented their access to a particular place. This leads to feelings of loneliness. In enduring more severe cases of inaccessibility (i.e. areas that are completely lacking in wheelchair ramps and other mobility-friendly accommodations), people may begin to feel isolated. This lack of interaction with others can even make them feel inferior as a result. When recent studies have suggested that loneliness actually rivals smoking and obesity as a health risk, it is critical for communities to prioritize accessibility when possible.

Severe Depression
With loneliness contributing significantly to increased risk for physical health issues, the subsequent mental difficulties are inevitable. Depression can stem from the feelings of isolation due to inaccessible environments or from coping with how the physical impairment itself affects self-image. Most often, though, it arises from a combination of both. Depression is characterized by persistent feelings of hopelessness, worthlessness, and sadness. While everyone experiences times of feeling down, clinical depression is typically long-term. Being consistently denied access to places weighs heavily on individuals with disabilities, generating feelings of hopelessness. Additionally, if the first episode of depression goes untreated as is often the case, there is a 50% chance of reoccurrence.

Lack of Livelihood
Being denied access to a leisure activity is rough enough, but when accessibility is a problem, it doesn’t just impact personal outings. This limitation also affects a person’s ability to work. Less than 20% of mobility device users are employed. While there are some programs available in some areas that provide subsidies, it is often not a livable amount. In 2016, the average SSDI income was $14,000 per year. This leaves people struggling to make ends meet. Financial hardship can also contribute to an increased risk of mental health issues. Moreover, the inability to work can contribute to (or cause) depression and anxiety. Work gives people a way to build community, share their passions, and connect with the world; it gives a sense of accomplishment and purpose. Without these things, and with an abundance of unused time on their hands, people begin to doubt their self-worth, and often feel useless. This adds more to their mental health difficulties and increases their risk for further complications, both mental and physical.

There is substantial scientific evidence that illustrates a strong connection between physical health and mental health. With that said, physical differences shouldn’t so gravely impact a person’s feelings of happiness and self-worth. Unfortunately that is the result when so many places are inaccessible when relying on mobility assistance. Being different can be difficult enough on its own, so it’s important to make our world as inclusive of everyone as possible.