I was inspired to work toward becoming a registered dietitian nutritionist around 16 years old, because of a childhood shaped by my diagnosis of cerebral palsy and other chronic conditions. I, like other young people with physical disabilities and/or chronic conditions, faced advice and criticism from physicians and family about my weight based solely on a numerical value on the scale and appearance, without understanding the science and genetics behind weight and a balanced diet. I wanted to become an RDN to improve care for people with disabilities and to increase the understanding of the science from a medical professional who also has a physical disability.
A majority of professors and peers in the nutrition and science department of Dominican University helped me become a trailblazer for the future students with disabilities who want to pursue a career in dietetics. It is unfortunate that some peers and professors were less supportive, mistaking my speech difference for intellectual disability.
Despite my hard work and determination, I did not achieve my goal of becoming an RDN because I did not match to an internship even though I went through two match processes. I attempted to become a nutrition and dietetic technician, registered, taking the exam four times but scoring 27 each time. Though I did not become an RDN or NDTR, I still believe I can be effective and impactful by teaching peers with and without disabilities how to live a healthy life based on science through writing and speaking on topics of basic nutrition and environmental issues.
There are specific nutrition concerns for people with disabilities. One issue includes trying to eat healthy on a limited food budget because some people with disabilities are on government assistance. Another challenge in working with young people with disabilities are picky eaters because they cannot consume certain textures. Others deal with chronic constipation. Dietitians may consider combining a high fiber diet along with a healthy use of laxatives as part of their bowel program.
Weight also is more difficult to manage because not every person with a physical disability needs more calories or as many as a non-disabled person. Dietitians may make the mistake that every person with a disability is going through a healing process, so they may make diet plans with higher calories. Most people with disabilities require fewer calories because they may be wheelchair users or other folks may require the assistance of other mobility devices and may be less active than many non-disabled individuals.
I think RDNs would benefit from partnering with occupational therapists to learn how to better support folks with physical or intellectual disabilities in learning adaptive healthy cooking. I urge dietitians to volunteer with adaptive sports organizations to learn how to support clients with a disability in becoming more physically active.
If diversity and disability etiquette was widely taught for allied health professionals, I believe it would improve the standard of care for millions of individuals and would show clients that their providers, including RDNs have taken the time to personalize their care.
The team behind Food & Nutrition Magazine® aims to amplify the voices of people of color and other underrepresented individuals in nutrition and dietetics and highlight the experiences of RDNs, NDTRs, dietetic interns and nutrition and dietetics students. Our goal is not only to stand in solidarity, but also help inform our readers and increase awareness about the importance of diversity in the field of nutrition and dietetics. We know it’s not enough, but we hope it’s a step in the right direction that will support meaningful conversations and a positive change in the profession.