"This profession historically has viewed themselves as able-bodied in the extreme," says a Harvard Medical School graduate who learned she had multiple sclerosis in medical school.
One day, she scrubbed in for a surgery and was flatly told by the surgeon that she had no business going into medicine. He said she lacked the field's most important quality -- 24/7 availability. Although the woman graduated medical school, she never became a practicing physician. This was before the 1990 Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) was passed, and she simply lacked the support to continue.
Is 24/7 availability really the most important quality for a doctor? Maybe not, but there appears to be a stigma around doctors admitting they are not superhuman and need care or accommodations. The ADA has had an impact -- and physicians are entitled to its protections -- but the stigma remains.
Now, a growing movement among current and aspiring doctors who have disabilities is beginning to challenge that stigma as a disservice to both doctors and patients.
Health policy researchers have shown that people with disabilities are less likely to receive common screenings like Pap smears. This may be because able-bodied doctors lack insight into the issues of living with disabilities.
Might a better narrative be that the most important quality for a doctor is the ability to relate to a wide variety of patients and the skill to provide them with the best care?
Recently, a Michigan psychologist and researcher decided to find 20 doctors with disabilities who would be willing to share their stories. The idea was to demonstrate that the field is rich with people of all ability levels practicing throughout the U.S. She started a social media campaign called #DocsWithDisabilities and received so much interest that there's now a #NurseswithDisabilities hashtag, too.
Doctors who shared their stories had disabilities such as deafness, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, learning disabilities and partial paralysis, for example. The stories they shared were life-changing for some future doctors who were trying to decide if they could practice with a disability.
One, a medical student, has since helped form a national student group with the goal of de-stigmatizing disability in the medical field. She believes her experience seeking accommodations and navigating her own disabilities will make her an even better doctor.
Reducing the stigma against disability is crucial if we are to have an inclusive medical field, and it's exciting to see these developments. What is also needed is strong advocacy for doctors' rights under the ADA. If you are a physician and have been denied a reasonable request for disability accommodation or have experienced discrimination, discuss your case with an experienced employment law attorney.