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Can you get quality health care as a black, disabled person?

Spoiler alert: yes, you can, but it’s really, really hard

EDITOR’S NOTE: This article is part of a Bedsider series highlighting the lived experiences of women of color in getting reproductive health care. Bedsider is committed to helping people get on top of their sex lives through information and access to quality care. That commitment includes celebrating all that birth control has to offer, but it also includes shining a light on some of the harsher realities, like inequities in health care.

My first foray into obtaining reproductive health care for myself was when I went to Planned Parenthood in Memphis, TN during college. I walked away feeling educated, empowered, and in control of not getting pregnant. However, the intersections of being black and, later, being a person with a disability meant that unfortunately, future experiences with getting sexual health care would not be as empowering.

When I moved to Atlanta, Georgia after marriage, I had access to health insurance through my (former) husband’s job, so I had a list of providers to choose from. The majority of the ob-gyns listed were white and male. Therefore, I ended up with white male physicians providing my reproductive and sexual health care. The pill was the only type of birth control they offered me, but I hated the way it made me feel, and I didn’t always remember to take it.

I became pregnant. The instant I found out, I knew I wanted the pregnancy intensely. However, several weeks prior, a rare congenital birth defect inside of my spinal cord had been discovered, and it was creating an aneurysm. It would require experimental surgeries at a university hospital to remove it.

It was the difficult process of going through treatment for my birth defect that taught me the importance of self-advocacy and of being an active part of my reproductive health care decisions. I encountered many negative opinions, predominantly from white male providers, on my decision to remain pregnant despite my need for the surgeries. I was pressured to abort. From a medical standpoint, pregnancy added risks to the upcoming procedures.

I was several weeks pregnant when I had 3 separate surgeries to remove the birth defect in my spinal cord, and during these surgeries, I acquired a spinal cord injury (SCI) that caused partial paralysis. When I got to the rehabilitation hospital after surgery, the admitting physician, an older white man, looked at me with disgust, and asked me why I hadn’t used birth control “or something,” if I had known the surgery carried the risk of paralysis. My partner was there, and he shut down further commentary from the doctor.

My partner became my staunchest ally, using his white privilege to support and advocate for my care. He had observed the difference in the treatment I received when he was involved (and not just when it came to medical care—in all areas of life), and his alliance played a huge part in me and my child beating the odds to survive the ordeal. Still, the racist and ableist comments continued. One white provider expressed incredulity (to both of us) that someone like me (black, disabled) could possibly have a professional, white, British spouse. I will never forget the impact of hearing those racially-biased, judgmental statements as I was getting medical treatment during one of the scariest periods of my life.

I recently moved West, and in looking for new health care providers, I have searched for those who demonstrate cultural competency and practice inclusion in providing reproductive and sexual health care. My experiences have empowered me to continue to do research and advocacy and work to raise awareness around the intersection of disability and reproductive and sexual health education. No aspect of your identity should impact the quality of your health care. It is promising and inspiring to know that many providers are realizing the impact of disparities in care and are working to correct these disparities by providing equitable and inclusive care to everyone.

For more information and tips on how to practice medical self-advocacy, check out our recent piece by Virgie Tovar, The art of being a difficult (aka empowered) patient. Get up to speed on all of your birth control options with our method explorer, and join the conversation on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

Robin Wilson-Beattie is a disability and certified sexuality educator, speaker, writer, and advocate for reproductive and sexual health concerns for people of all abilities. When she’s not talking about sex, you can find her baking in the kitchen or in an airport, headed to the next adventure.

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