Sensory problems can be one of the barriers to healthcare for people with sensory sensitivity, like veterans with PTSD.
What is a barrier to healthcare? Well, a barrier is an obstacle. And barriers to healthcare can mean poorer health for people.
Healthcare is delivered by many different health professionals or healthcare providers which may include:
- medicine or medical services delivered by physicians or medical doctors,
- nurse practitioners, and nurses;
- occupational therapy,
- physiotherapy/physical therapy,
- speech-language pathologists,
- and the list goes on.
Healthcare also treats both physical health and mental health.
For people with sensory sensitivity, they might feel senses more or less than other people. Some people might be highly sensitive or hypersensitive. They feel from their senses more intensely. Some people have less sensitivity or be hyposensitive. They feel from their senses less intensely. Further, sensory sensitivity is a problem for many people. It is a problem for veterans with PTSD, people with anxiety, autism, concussion, hearing loss, and many other challenges.
Sensory sensitivity and barriers to healthcare.
Sensory sensitivity is a common problem for people with autism. A recent study shows that adults with autism identify sensory issues as a barrier to receiving healthcare services. In an article published in 2017, the authors of the study reported that autistic participants picked not only different but also greater barriers to healthcare, particularly in areas related to emotional regulation, patient-provider communication, sensory sensitivity, and healthcare navigation. This is in comparison to people with other disabilities or people without autism. Moreover, 30% of the adults with autism who responded, said specifically that the facilities themselves contributed to their sensory issues and were a barrier to their access to healthcare.
Sensory sensitivity is not just a problem for adults with autism. There are many people with sensory sensitivity that contributes to sensory issues and in particular, sensory overload. Furthermore, this includes people with a number of other underlying conditions that are increasingly prevalent, such as anxiety, autism, concussion, dementia, hearing loss, and post-traumatic stress disorder. As well, these conditions and their associated sensory sensitivities impede people’s ability to engage in daily life.
What helps people with sensory sensitivity overcome barriers to healthcare?
Did you know that there are very practical things to do to help people with sensory sensitivity overcome barriers to healthcare? One of the biggest things is to make healthcare facilities and environments sensory-friendly. Sensory-friendly means creating a space that is friendly to the senses. In addition, the sensory experience will be less intense, especially for people who have sensory sensitivity or experience sensory overload.
Sometimes environments are sensory-rich, meaning they are by nature busy, noisy, and bright and it can be difficult to change all the features and characteristics that make it so. Where possible, reducing background noise in general, is critical. For example, many places have background music playing at all times. Eliminating that background music or limiting it is very helpful.
Another important part of being sensory-friendly is letting people know what to expect and when to expect it. So for a large healthcare facility, having a sensory-friendly map that lets people know where the noisy spots are and where the quiet spots are, both on a map and on local signage, is helpful.
A sensory-friendly example for veterans that removes barriers to healthcare.
One of my favorite sensory-friendly transformation projects that I undertook was to remove barriers to healthcare for veterans by creating a sensory-friendly room. That sensory-friendly transformation project encompassed designing a room where veterans would come in for interviews and meetings about their healthcare services and benefits.
I have an over 70-point checklist that I go through in a sensory-friendly transformation assessment. First, I go through the checklist and immediately make any changes possible. Nevertheless, some changes take more time or resources. However, there are always some easy, quick changes that can easily be made.
In the transformation of this small meeting room, I had to account for veterans of all ages and all abilities coming in to meet with staff at the office that served veterans.
- Therefore, younger veterans with PTSD might use the room,
- But also veterans who were in their 80s or older with mobility difficulties might also use the room.
- Veterans with hearing loss might use the room.
- Family or caregivers might also accompany veterans.
Likewise, there were many sensory sensitives to account for, in addition to accessibility and the comfort of both the staff and the veteran. Additionally, there were guidelines from the veteran’s facility itself to account for and a local interior designer was helpful throughout the process. Subsequently, the facility had a budget to order new furniture for the room.
I included both a love seat and individual upholstered chairs. To clarify, sometimes veterans might like to sit in their own chair, but other veterans might want to sit on the love seat next to their spouse, partner or caregiver. Likewise, seating is important for the senses of balance, movement, and touch. The spacing of the seating is important for hearing. For some veterans, the staff would need to sit directly in front of the veteran. However, I also thought about how the chairs and loveseat could fit in the room, facing each other, but also allowing a choice to sit facing the window or away from the window, important for the sense of sight.
A great deal of thought went into the simple décor. I picked cool tones for the room, a bright, slightly aqua blue (so it would not feel too military) and greys for the most part. I also kept the color palette simple. Likewise, I also picked out some simple décor but also included plain space on the walls too, so it was not too visually overwhelming. What is more, I wanted the room to feel comfortable and not institutional. The room had the advantage of great natural light. But, I also had to ensure that the light could be blocked off easily with blinds to avoid glare from the sun and light coming through the windows.
I included a small table that could be easily moved around from in front of the seats to beside the seats. Also, I added height with furniture risers to the love seat and couch so that it was easy to sit down on and get up. This was important because I knew that many veterans had knee and back problems that affected their movement. Furthermore, I also picked chairs and a love seat with arms and they had firm seats and backs. I included pillows to soften things up and provide extra back support if needed.
I was very mindful of what was on the walls. So, I picked photography/prints of nature but really tried to pick ones that would not evoke memories of the theatre of war. As well, I also included a clock, garbage can and a table with a box of tissues, just to be practical. I made sure the garbage can was on the cleaner’s list to empty daily. Small things, but nevertheless important to include. There is also a public bathroom and public water fountain about 50 feet away from the room.
Let us go through each of the eight senses with examples of how I made space sensory-friendly and helped remove barriers to healthcare.
“Cool” room colors
Few room colors
Photography prints from nature
Uncluttered wall space
|Hearing||Spacing of seating so people can see each other|
|Smell||Garbage can with lid|
|Touch||Spacing of furniture
|Taste||Water fountain nearby|
|Balance||Spacing of furniture
Room to move
|Movement||Spacing of furniture
Small moveable table
Chairs with arms for support
Upholstered furniture with medium firm density
Pillows for back support
|Interoception||Spacing of furniture
Public bathroom and water fountain nearby
Table 1 sensory-friendly examples for a veterans interview room in a healthcare services facility
Or, do you know of a healthcare provider that is sensory-friendly?
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Christel Seeberger has been an occupational therapist for more than 25 years, helping people of all ages who experience sensory sensitivity and sensory overload. Christel understands how sensitivity and overload feel, she has hearing loss and wears hearing aids. Christel founded Sensory Friendly Solutions in 2016 to bring together people around the world looking for sensory-friendly living and the individuals, businesses and organizations who create sensory friendly experiences.