Misunderstandings around disability and reasonable adjustments

This anonymised account reflects the views of an individual, and not the General Medical Council.

A deafblind medical student shares how their disability has been viewed, the challenges they’ve faced in securing reasonable adjustments, and the benefits they see in connecting with other disabled medics.

Stigma around disability

I am a deafblind student in my second year of studying medicine. I feel very passionately about how medical students with disabilities are currently being treated, due to the hurdles and discrimination I have experienced.

The challenges began the moment I applied to medical school. After receiving an offer to study medicine, I visited the school on four separate occasions between receiving my offer and results. I wanted to make sure support was in place, and I was assured it would be. By August, I achieved higher results than requested by the university, so I assumed I was automatically accepted. Sadly, I received a phone call one evening from the school informing me that they no longer wanted me due to my visual impairment. I was left with no university place after clearing and back to square one. 

At my current medical school, it’s clear that some members of staff are trying to support me, but others not so much. Unfortunately, I feel there is still a huge stigma attached to medical students with disabilities. I worry every day that they can turn around at any point and say they no longer want me, due to my disabilities alone. 

I have been faced with unnecessary comments from staff who don’t understand me, my disabilities, or my abilities. Many of my suggestions for using particular gadgets, or methods to help support me through the course have been rejected, due to whether they are deemed ‘reasonable’ adjustments – a term which I strongly feel is being misunderstood and misconceived. It is very hard to believe that an able-bodied person can decide what they believe is truly a reasonable adjustment on behalf of a person with the disability. Surely nobody knows someone’s capabilities and limits more than the individual themselves?

Misunderstandings around reasonable adjustments

I requested to have one-to-one clinical sessions to help explore alternative ways of carrying out basic clinical skills in preparation for practice on the wards and in my exams. The medical school says I should be treated no differently to any other medical student and so cannot have additional one-to-ones. 

There is also a great misunderstanding with clinical placements. For instance, I received an email describing me as ‘incapable’ of going to hubs further away as I’m visually impaired and can’t take buses. This of course is a huge misassumption; I have travelled the continents of Asia, Africa and North America solo.

Again, it is all down to a lack of knowledge and unfamiliarity with dealing with these sorts of cases. I have always felt that in order to conquer these misunderstandings, one needs to talk to the people with the disabilities themselves, which doesn’t seem to be happening.

A shared experience

One positive thing that has come out of all these difficulties, and an uncertain future ahead for my medical studies, is the knowledge that there are others in a similar situation as myself. This year, I have become acquainted with two other medical students from my university who have disabilities. It has been very interesting and inspiring hearing their stories of both struggles and progressions during their course.

While in the US shadowing various blind doctors, I was asked if there was an equivalent to the ‘American Association for Handicapped Physicians’ in the UK, which I don’t believe there is. I would like to set up an equivalent association here in the UK so that prospective medical students and current doctors with disabilities don’t feel like they need to hold back - they would have the support and understanding from the general public and other healthcare practitioners at hand.

What I would change…

  • Wipe away the old-fashioned stigmas and stereotypes. Educate everyone in the medical field and medical education system on the different types of disabilities, and understand that one person with one disability is in no way the same as another person with that same disability.
  • Encourage the use of technology and keep up to date with the new advances in the technological world. These tools could become so precious to the disabled doctor or medical student, putting more focus on their abilities with adjustments, rather than their disabilities.
  • Treat disabled students as individuals. Pinpoint the exact needs of each and every one and help them become good doctors, just like every other able-bodied student is helped in their time at medical school. Those with disabilities probably have had to work much harder than able-bodied students, so possess qualities that will make them great doctors, if allowed to.
  • Set up an association for disabled doctors and medical students. I am working on this at the moment, in collaboration with the many blind/deaf doctors I met in the US.