Disabled doctors enable NHS

May 30, 2003

Medics with disabilities should be welcomed by the health service, says Anne Tynan.

"The attitude was to cure disabilities," David Du Bois, associate professor specialising in disability issues at the State University of New York, told United Press International. "If it could not be cured, it was viewed as a failure of the medical community. So it doesn't surprise me that an environment that historically sees disability as a failure is not warm and fuzzy towards members who have disabilities."

While "warm and fuzzy" are not part of my usual vocabulary when writing about disability, I agree about the lack of enthusiasm among some of the medical community towards members who have disabilities. Some disabled medical students and doctors would want me to go further by pointing out the marked hostility in some quarters towards anyone who dares to have a disability. If they had their way, those opposing entry to medicine for disabled people would amend the "Emergency Exit" signs in hospitals and medical schools to read "Disabled Medical Students and Doctors: Exit Now".

My belief that we need more disabled doctors was strengthened by reactions to my report on admissions to UK medical, dental and veterinary schools for applicants with disabilities, funded by the Learning and Teaching Support Network subject centre for medicine, dentistry and veterinary medicine.

This study - Pushing the Boat Out - hit the schools, the professions and the public in March.

Responses have poured in. There has been a reported flurry of activity around the UK as well as abroad. Crucially, the report has allowed me to have eyes and ears in medical schools, health centres and hospitals in countless places. It has also brought to me the voices of many unknown individuals who have a disability.

So why do we need more disabled doctors? Integration into mainstream employment is by far the most important factor determining the acceptance of disabled people within society. Responses to Pushing the Boat Out contain amazement that such integration has not already taken place to a much greater degree within medicine. Quote: "Surely they should be leading the rest of us?"

Other professional fields might claim to have little experience or understanding of human disability so integration is a slow process. This should not be the case with the medical profession. On the contrary, one could argue that it is desperately in need of the experience of doctors who have a disability. It is noticeable to lay people that the medical profession has frequent "cravings" for carrying out research in obscure fields of knowledge deemed to be of irreplaceable benefit to the human race. Is it not about time that it had a serious craving for exploring and making use of the experience of doctors who have a disability? The General Medical Council and the British Medical Association are acting to redress the situation, but the public needs to see greater support and publicity for the current initiatives.

Anyone concerned that this is only perpetuating the "medical model of disability", so hated by many disabled people, should think again. While people working in areas across the professional spectrum may never use one another's services, everyone needs the services of a doctor at some stage.

A disabled doctor can be one of the most powerful levers for change in attitudes towards disabled people.

As we move into an era when the terms "licence to practise", "appraisal" and "revalidation" become common currency, the contribution of disabled doctors will undoubtedly come "out of the wilderness" and into its own.

Anne Tynan is the director of Diverse, the Hefce-funded veterinary medicine disability project led by the Royal Veterinary College, University of London.

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