U.S. Census numbers show that higher rates of rural Americans have a disability than urban Americans.
In 2021, nearly 15% of rural residents reported having a disability, compared to 12.6% of urban people, according to the U.S. Census.
“It really doesn’t surprise me,” said Dan Kessler, interim executive director of Association of Programs for Rural Independent Living, also known as APRIL. “When you look at rural areas, in terms of disability, there are many factors. I think one of those could very well be just access to health care…. Looking at primary care, where you may see a physician for a number of issues, for example, your diabetes or, or some other condition, which, if left untreated, could very well result in someone acquiring a long term disability.”
Kessler added that the digital divide also impacts access to medical care.
According to the Census numbers, in 2021, the South had the nation’s highest rates of disability at 13.8%. That was followed by the Midwest (13.1%), the Northeast (12.3%), and the West (12.1%).
“A lot of people age into a disability,” Mary WIllard, director of Training and Technical Assistance at APRIL told the Daily Yonder. “We talk about disability, it is really from that birth to dirt kind of a spectrum. And so I would say aging into disability, it’s a big thing in rural areas that’s been happening.”
She added that the surveys have also changed how they ask the questions, which may impact numbers.
“We’re starting to see a bigger breadth of people now disclosing on the Census, as well. So that’s … some of it’s just semantics, I think, disclosing I have a disability versus I might have difficulty walking,” Willard said.
Kessler told the Daily Yonder housing is another factor. “If you have affordable, accessible, safe housing, that can have a direct impact on your health care and your well being,” he said.
WIllard added that in many rural areas, the housing stock is older, making it harder to retrofit for people, especially with the increased costs for building materials associated with the pandemic.
Direct care workers also may not get paid for the travel time from rural client to rural client, making it less financially feasible, she added.
Still, there are positives, Willard said.
“I think rural America, especially post pandemic, has become more appealing to people with disabilities, especially if you’re immunocompromised,” she said.
Willard also mentioned the program AgrAbility, which works to enhance the quality of life for farmers, ranchers, and other agricultural workers with disabilities.
“I think more programs like that are helping people with disabilities to really live the rural agricultural life that they want to,” she said.