story by Ryan Saylor
A recent report from the United States Census Bureau ranks the state of Arkansas as one of the top states for disability prevalence among the total population.
The report, which said Arkansas was in the "top five states for disability prevalence in the total population," said that among individuals receiving income-based government assistance, Arkansas also had one of the highest rates of disability prevalence.
In all, 37.2%, or 177,715, of the 477,730 Arkansas residents receiving government assistance had a disability, according to Census Bureau data.
Dr. Katharine Stewart, a professor of health behavior and the associate dean for academic affairs at the Fay W. Boozman College of Health at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences in Little Rock, said it was not surprising that there would be such a prevalence of disabled individuals in Arkansas.
But what causes Arkansas to have such a high number of disabled individuals in the total populous and receiving government assistance?
Stewart said there are many factors, both behavioral and lifestyle, that affect the number.
"We also have socioeconomic and social factors that influence health – poverty rates, access to care and occupation," she said.
She said certain industries found specifically in Arkansas, such as manufacturing or other manual labor, are inherently dangerous and can lead to accidents that cause life-long disabilities.
"We are also ranked high in occupational fatalities," she added.
In addition to occupational hazards, Stewart said something as simple as preventative care is many times hard to come by for many Arkansas residents. While some residents do not have access to good preventative care due to geography, she said in other areas of the state good preventative care is available but some residents are unable to afford it.
Tied directly to the levels of poverty in Arkansas are the conditions people live in, which contribute to sickness and could lead to disabilities, Stewart said.
"Housing can affect the health of individuals," she said.
Dr. Allen Lukasek, who practices occupational and environmental medicine at Sparks Occupational Medicine in Fort Smith, said there are many unknowns when it comes to the study released by the Census Bureau.
He said without knowing the ages and disabilities of the individuals included in the survey, it would be difficult to determine why the number of disabled individuals in Arkansas is higher than other neighboring states, such as Texas, where only 28.6% of its residents on income-based government assistance happen to be disabled.
"When you study statistics, there are a number of different slants you can put on this," Lukasek said.
But Stewart said even if the statistics were slanted, it did not change the situation faced by medical providers and public health agencies in Arkansas.
"I think, to me, the main message is it is a very complicated and complex problem," she said.
In order to solve the problem, she said work is already underway by multiple groups.
"I think that what healthcare and public health research and practice are trying to address are multiple (problems that lead to disabled individuals)," Stewart said.
She added that addressing lifestyle-related issues, such as high blood pressure and diabetes, can help in the long term, but will not be the only solution.
"To solve it, we need people working at those different points in the cycle," Stewart said. "We need as many people to have access to preventative care has possible. We need to continue to work at the system level to improve issues with poverty. Together, that's how we'll have the biggest impact on the long term."