How Women With Disabilities Can Prepare for Mammograms

What to know if you're in a wheelchair or scooter

Woman in wheelchair preparing for mammogram with doctor
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Life is challenging enough for women that use a wheelchair or a scooter. They should not have to risk their breast health because accessing a mammogram is more than they can manage.

Have you ever thought about the difficulties involved in having a mammogram if you have a physical disability that limits your mobility? It is usually so difficult that many women with limited mobility, especially wheelchair and scooter users, frequently are forced to forego regular mammograms. Some women don’t get them at all. These are dangerous choices; women with a physical disability can and do get breast cancer. Since many of these women don't get regular screenings, some may have a more advanced breast cancer, and a poor prognosis by the time they are finally diagnosed.

It has been over 25 years since the Americans with Disabilities Act became law. Yet, women with a physical disability still experience significant barriers when trying to get mammograms.

Most of us only have to choose a mammography center, make an appointment and then keep the appointment.

This is not usually the case for a woman using a wheelchair or a scooter. She must find a mammography center that really is accessible and user-friendly. She needs to know before she books an appointment:

  • Is the building wheelchair accessible?
  • Is there a wheelchair accessible bathroom?
  • Is the changing room accessible?
  • Does the mammography screening room have enough swing space to make maneuvering a wheelchair, especially a motorized chair even possible?
  • Are staff trained, comfortable, and willing to position both a mammography machine and a woman with a physical disability?

Even facilities that are accessible are not always willing to accommodate a woman with a physical disability as it takes extra time, patience, and a skill set to administer a screening while a woman remains in her wheelchair. It often takes two staff members to screen a woman in a wheelchair; it frequently takes longer than the standard reimbursable time covered by insurance.

In addition to the barriers that mammography facilities hold for women with a physical disability, there are other barriers to accessing mammography screenings.

Women living on a limited income from Social Security Disability or Social Security Insurance, may not have a private physician and often get their medical care at a hospital clinics and/or freestanding health centers in their communities. Many times these facilities, which may have accessible entries and bathrooms, are not equipped to accommodate them for mammograms.

If you are a woman with a disability, you will want to know how to prepare for your appointment by finding out:

  • How do I dress for the screening?
  • How do prepare if I use a wheelchair or a scooter?
  • May I be able to stay seated?
  • Can I have additional time if the screening takes longer that my scheduled appointment time?

When you call for an appointment, be sure to ask the staff person who schedules you to let the radiology technician and other staff, who may be providing assistance, know your physical limits, such as:

  • your ability to sit upright with or without assistance
  • if you are able to lift and move your arms
  • your ability to transfer independently from your wheelchair or scooter
  • if you can undress/dress yourself without assistance

On the day you go for a mammogram, be sure to:

  • wear a shirt, blouse, or sweater that opens in the front
  • wear a bra that is easy to remove
  • not wear any deodorant or body powder

Finding a facility that is fully accessible with an educated and compassionate staff is best accomplished by getting referrals from the staff of organizations that serve women with disabilities. Other good sources of referrals are:

  • major hospital centers that serve women with physical disabilities
  • breast centers
  • local health departments

If cost is a factor, know that Medicare and Medicaid plans cover the cost of screening mammograms as do most health insurance providers. Be sure to check with your insurance company for more information about your specific plan’s coverage.

If you do not have private health insurance and are not covered under Medicaid or Medicare, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has a National Breast and Cervical Cancer Early Detection Program (NBCCEDP), which offers free or low-cost mammograms, as well as information about breast cancer.

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