Disability, Mental Health, & Substance Use: Part III

Dive Deeper

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Please note that we use a combination of person-first (e.g., person with a disability) and identity-first language (e.g., disabled person) in this article in acknowledgment of differing preferences within the disability community. When speaking to an individual it is always best to ask if they prefer person-first or identity first language.

This article does include information relating to suicide and suicidal behavior. If you or someone you know may be struggling with suicidal thoughts, you can call 988 for free, confidential support from the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. For ASL services, click the “ASL Now” button at https://988lifeline.org/. For services in Spanish, call 988 and press option 2.

Part III: Address Barriers & What We Can Do

Part I outlined two main definitions of disability and highlighted how people with disabilities are disproportionately impacted by mental health and substance use challenges. Part II dived deeper into the context behind the statistics covered in Part I. This section will break down actionable steps that can be taken to help make mental health and substance prevention and intervention accessible for disabled people. Part I outlined two main definitions of disability and highlighted how people with disabilities are disproportionately impacted by mental health and substance use challenges. Part II dived deeper into the context behind the statistics covered in Part I. This section will break down actionable steps that can be taken to help make mental health and substance prevention and intervention accessible for disabled people.

Barriers faced by disabled people can make it difficult for disabled people to find and access care for mental illness. Some of those barriers include:

Barrier Definition & Examples What Can We Do?

Stigma refers to negative attitudes or beliefs about disability. 

An example of a stigmatizing belief is the idea that disabled people are kind, but incompetent.

Use neutral language and avoid ableist language

For example, instead of saying a person is “wheelchair bound” say the person is a “wheelchair user”.


Bias refers to the tendency to view disability either positively or negatively.

An example of a negative disability bias is the assumption that people with disabilities have a poorer quality of life. 

An example of a positive disability bias is the assumption that disabled people are always nice.

Learn about disability and ableism. When educating yourself, look for resources that are by disabled people.

For example, we can learn more about our own implicit biases around disability and work towards countering these biases.

Communication barriers

Communication barriers are obstacles that impact the exchange of information.

Examples include not providing ASL interpretation, written messages that use small print, videos without correct captions, communications that use technical or abstract language instead of plain language, etc.

Increase communication accessibility. 

Example include providing ASL interpretation, using alt text, offering multiple ways or methods of contact (e.g. phone and email), checking documents or websites for color contrast, providing transcripts, captioning videos, and ensuring documents or websites are screen-reader accessible.

Financial barriers

People with disabilities face employment discrimination and are more likely to be unemployed, underemployed, and/or live below the poverty line, meaning that financial cost can be a barrier.

For example, financial cost can be a barrier to things like treatment, medications, or assistive technology.

Expand health insurance (e.g., Medicaid).

Address the pay gap and subminimum wage.

Update Social Security Income (SSI) benefits and rules.

For example, proposed legislation like the SSI Savings Penalty Elimination Act would update SSI benefits for inflation.

Physical barriers

Physical barriers are structural or environmental barriers that impact access. 

Examples include narrow doorways, doors without automatic door openers, stairs, steep ramps, etc.

Increase physical accessibility.

For example, ensure that program spaces are accessible, mark accessible routes on maps, and provide clear signage for elevators and entrances/exits.

Systemic barriers

Systemic barriers are policies, practices, procedures, laws, etc. that perpetuate inequitable access. 

Examples include hiring practices that discourage disabled people from applying (e.g., a carrying capacity requirement for a desk job), event planning that does not incorporate accessibility, lack of enforcement of disability rights legislation like the ADA, etc.

Listen to disabled people & amplify disabled voices. 

For example, this could be done by sharing content from disability activists to your platform (don’t forget to properly cite!). 

Include disabled people in policy making and program planning. 

For example, this could be done by involving people with disabilities throughout the legislative and programming process. 

Technology barriers

Technology barriers are when software, electronics, or other forms of technology are not accessible. 

Examples include websites that are not screen-reader accessible, images without alt text (written descriptions of the image), using only one method of communication (e.g. phone only), etc.

Increase technological accessibility.

For example, ensuring that there are multiple ways to register for an event (e.g. in-person, online, and via phone). 

Transportation barriers

Transportation barriers are obstacles that prevent or impact movement from one place to another.

Examples include needing to travel long distances and a lack of public or accessible transportation.

Increase transportation accessibility.

Examples include ensuring that public transit is accessible, improving paratransit, and using event spaces that are near public transit stops.

What Else Can We Do?

Many of the barriers mentioned above require collaborative efforts to improve current systems to better support the mental and physical wellbeing of disabled people. As you work diligently towards these goals in your community, consider these actions that you can begin taking now:     


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Learn about disability, ableism, and sanism

  • When educating yourself, look for resources that are by disabled people. Examples of educational resources created by people with disabilities are available in the resources section at the bottom of this page.


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Address ableism and sanism

  • When you notice ableism or sanism, address it. Two great ways to do this are by asking why and educating people. For example, if someone uses ableist language, you could respond with, “I’m sorry, but could you explain why you used that wording?” or you could explain to them why that language is harmful.


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Include disabled people in policy making, program planning, and research

  • In order to ensure disability equity and inclusion, people with disabilities need to be involved throughout the legislative, programming, and research processes. 


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Promote trauma-informed, culturally sensitive practices


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Decriminalize mental health conditions

  • Decriminalizing mental health conditions diverts people with mental health conditions that are arrested for minor charges to community-based services and supports rather than incarcerating or institutionalizing them. To learn more about this work in Oregon, visit Disability Rights Oregon “Mental Health Rights Projects”. 


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Make comprehensive chronic pain management inclusive and accessible


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Increase and expand access to community-based mental health services

  • Increasing and expanding access to community-based mental health services allows people to recover in their community and close to their support systems. This can be achieved through policies, grants, and other investments.


We hope this page has provided a brief introduction to issues of disability equity within mental health and substance use. To learn more, we recommend resources that have been developed by the disabled community or in collaboration with the disabled community. We have included a list of various resources to get you started, organized alphabetically by topic.


Access is Love 
  • The Access is Love Campaign highlights 10 ways that you can help improve access as well as suggested readings and resources.
Disability and Inclusivity Best Practices: A Guide for Successful Inclusion of Community Members in Health Education Programs
  • A guide by the Oregon Office on Disability and Health on planning accessible in-person and virtual health education events. 
Web Accessibility Initiative: Making the Web Accessible
  • This website provides a variety of information and resources to improve website accessibility.

Community-Based Groups:

DARN: Disability Advocacy and Research Network 
  • DARN is a community for disabled people and allies in the field of psychology or other related fields. Their website includes a list of disability-related resources, a community directory, and a blog.
Disability Rights Oregon
  • Disability Rights Oregon focuses on legal and policy issues. One of their current projects is the “Mental Health Rights Projects” that focuses on decriminalizing mental health conditions.
Not Dead Yet
  • Not Dead Yet is a grassroots disability group focused on educating the public about assisted suicide and euthenasia legislation. 

Disability Language:

Disability Writing & Journalism Guidelines
  • These guidelines from the Center for Disability Rights explain the importance of disability language and provides clear recommendations for responsible writing and journalism.
APA Style Guide for Disability Language 
  • These guidelines highlight bias-free language, language to avoid, and discusses the difference between person-first and identity-first language.


APA Guidelines for Assessment and Intervention with Persons with Disabilities
  • These guidelines aimed at psychologists and psychology trainees are meant to provide education and guidance for working with people with disabilities to ensure that practices are inclusive, accessible, and culturally competent. 
APA Disability Issues Office 
  • This resource from the American Psychology Association includes links to relevant tools, publications, programs, and policies. 
Psychology Today: Disability is Diversity 
  • This blog by Dr. Bogart provides education on ableism and its impact.
Disability Visibility Project
  • The Disability Visibility Project provides a platform to share and amplify the voices of disabled people. The project includes blog posts on various disability issues. 
No Body Is Expendable: Medical Rationing and Disability Justice During the COVID-19 Pandemic 
  • This article dives into ableism and medical rationing during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Supporting LGBTQ Young People with Disabilities
  • A guide by the Trevor Project for how to best support LGBTQ+ young people with disabilities. The guide covers different disability identities, intersectional identities, person-first and identity-first language, ableism, internalized ableism, and allyship. 
Trauma Informed Oregon 
  • Offers a variety of resources focused on trauma informed care. Notable resources include “Providing Trauma Informed Care to Autistic Adults”, “Trauma Informed Care for Survivors With Disabilities”, and “Trauma Informed Care for Autistic Survivors”.


Disability History: Overlooked but Not Forgotten 
  • This article provides a brief overview of the disability rights movement from a disability studies perspective.
The History of the Americans with Disabilities Act: A Movement Perspective 
  • This article discusses the events leading up to the ADA as well as its passing.


Mental Health Provider Training Program 
  • A training from the Oregon Office on Disability and Health for mental healthcare providers. The training focuses on increasing accessibility for individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities (I/DD).