In the month of January, we take time to celebrate the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Known most for his personal passion and sacrifice for the civil rights and equal protection of all, Dr. King’s dream is one which has been enshrined as
a part of our American culture – the inherent desire that we all be judged not by the color of our skin, but the content of our character.
More than 50 years after his death, Dr. King’s dream, for many Americans, continues to be an important aspiration and is a guidepost on the road to the way things “should be.” The desire to create a more equitable America is a goal towards which all of us can work and ascribe. In the quest for this goal, we move ourselves and our society closer to achieving that dream and creating a nation living up to its creed of brotherhood and freedom.
While ending racial prejudice was inherently important, Dr. King saw this as only the first step in a longer-form process. The following steps were aimed at further addressing inequalities that kept people from accessing the things that would not just make them more equal, but also lay the groundwork for their success.
“Our brothers and sisters are poverty stricken, unable to gain the basic necessities of life …Some of them are Mexican Americans. Some of them are Indians. Some are Puerto Ricans. Some are Appalachian whites. The vast majority are Negroes in proportion to their size in the population … Now there is nothing new about poverty. It’s been with us for years and centuries. What is new at this point though, is that we now have the resources, we now have the skills, we now have the techniques to get rid of poverty. And the question is whether our nation has the will.”
– The Three Evils of Society, August 31, 1967
While the words that were written more than 50 years ago continue to ring true for many Americans, including those with disabilities, there are critical disparities in multiple areas, including limited employment opportunities, barriers to wealth obtainment, and the ability to access quality health care.
In my current role at Anthem, I am most focused on the effects of health disparities for people with disabilities. The separation of Americans from the basic necessities of life due to poverty continues to be a reality for many Americans and Americans with disabilities in the form of health disparities. The preventable differences in the burden of disease, injury, violence, or opportunities to achieve optimal health that are experienced by marginalized and disadvantaged populations continue to be a dividing line separating us as a nation, making it difficult for many of us to attain that dream of health and equality.
For many marginalized groups, and especially for individuals with disabilities, these disparities can mean the difference between a life of independence and personal success, or constantly struggling to keep up, stay employed, and stay healthy. Issues such as poverty, poor environment or living conditions, inadequate access to health care, or even lack of access to education, as Dr. King noted, have long term effects that without attention, can last for years and centuries. As Dr. King also noted, we have the capacity to address these issues and make changes that would create more equity and access to care.
Like the path to addressing racial discrimination, there is a plan to address these issues. Many health and disability policy advocates, as well as change-makers in marginalized communities, have addressed the importance of alleviating health disparities for all. At the national level, Federal Agencies including the National Institutes of Health, have done research and offered an approach to improving health outcomes for marginalized communities.
Basic research and creating health education programs go a long way to leveling the playing field and helping individuals get equal access to care. We have the technology and knowledge, but as it was in Dr. King’s day, the greatest hurdle is creating the will to make the changes that are necessary to bring these technologies and strategies to bear and eliminate health disparities that rob our communities of their direction, success, and vision.
This year on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, I encourage us all to think about how we can take part in Dr. King’s vision to help address the health disparities in marginalized communities. While it can seem daunting to think of how we can address long-standing issues, it can be done with the drive and collaboration with communities that have the collective will to make the change that we wish to see in the world.
Companies like Anthem have helped set an example of how this can be done through collaborations with communities to create better solutions and access to quality care and services. Addressing issues like housing instability, mental health and substance use, and employment all lead to better health outcomes and ultimately help change attitudes about what Dr. King called the basic necessities of life. Additionally, it becomes a reminder that making our communities better places for everyone is possible, especially when we take the time to develop opportunities based on support, understanding, and collaboration.
This year, as we participate in service projects and recognition of Dr. King’s legacy, let us all take some time to think about how we can help address inequalities people continue to experience within our healthcare system. By thinking critically about how we can best address our individual and community health needs, we gain the opportunity to mend the rift that is separating all Americans from justice, equality, and freedom.