Health and Disability Training: The Power to Transform Public Health

meredith-williamsBy Meredith Williams, MPH, 2015–2016 NACCHO Health and Disability Fellow

This story originally ran in NACCHO’s Essential Elements blog.

This October, I had the privilege of representing the National Association of County and City Health Officials (NACCHO) Health and Disability Team at the American Public Health Association (APHA) Conference in Denver. As a former NACCHO Health and Disability Fellow, I was thrilled to see so much interest in our poster on health and disability training. My time at the conference gave me the chance to share my experiences with training, learn from national disability leaders in public health, and encourage professionals, students, and educators to join us in advancing this crucial field.

Why is Health and Disability Training Important?
People with disabilities experience serious, preventable health disparities. As a person who has lived with chronic illness and disability for 16 years, I quickly learned that there was much more to health than could be addressed during medical appointments. Like most people with disabilities, I encountered barriers at almost every turn—in the health care system, in my community, and in my education. I chose a public health graduate program because I believed that it would be a valuable framework for understanding and addressing these barriers.

Since public health students rarely receive training about individuals with disabilities, the NACCHO Health and Disability Fellowship was my first opportunity to learn what public health is doing to meet the needs of this particular population I also gained practical skills and valuable experiences, including:

  • Learning first-hand from local health departments about their challenges, constraints, and goals;
  • Helping local health departments take realistic, sustainable steps to include people with disabilities;
  • Developing tools and resources for public health professionals; and
  • Communicating effectively with different professional audiences.

Beyond the skills and experiences I gained, the fellowship was transformative for me on a personal level. People with disabilities often feel unheard, overlooked, and excluded. For the first time in my life, I was given a literal seat at the table. This experience helped me to see that my real-life experiences are valuable to public health and empowered me to make meaningful contributions to health and disability efforts, which will affect my own life. As a direct result, I am now a much more vocal champion for change and a stronger believer in my own leadership abilities.

Training programs like the NACCHO Health and Disability Fellowship are definitively transformative for the field public health—giving a voice to populations that have long struggled to be heard, addressing unmet needs, influencing change across sectors, and creating tomorrow’s leaders. Including and empowering people with disabilities has the potential to improve the way we define and understand health, including designing public health programs, services, and activities that are more effective for everyone.

What Can Local Health Departments Do?
By providing health and disability training opportunities, local health departments can make public health efforts more effective, inclusive, and empowering for people with disabilities. To start, local health department staff can:

What Can Public Health Students Do?
Graduate students and recent graduates can apply for next year’s cohort of the NACCHO Health and Disability fellowship, recruitment will start sometime in summer 2017. The fellowship is an outstanding opportunity to gain practical experience, receive training in disability inclusion, and network with national public health leadership.