The highly anticipated release of Marvel Studios’ Eternals has people excited about superheroes. When I see an individual in a white coat and stethoscope or a person in scrubs, I see a real superhero, someone who works in the health care field. Our health care providers showed us their superpowers when our country was infected by the novel coronavirus. We witnessed collaboration amongst medical disciplines to combat this deadly virus. Each day, these superheroes showed up to aid the sick. It seemed as if they never got to eat, sleep, visit their family or let alone be ill themselves. But what if our clinicians are sick? Or, what if they have a disability? Does that make them less of a superhero and more … mortal? This is an urgent issue for our aspiring health care workers.
There are high school students living with attention deficit disorder, psychological and/or physical disabilities who may want to be doctors, physician assistants and/or nurses but are being told that would be impossible because of their disability. But why are students with disabilities being discouraged from entering the health care field? Many would reason there is a perception of real-life superheroes — doctors, nurses, physician assistants, etc., fitting a certain mold. That mold is one of physical and academic perfection, and there can be no alterations. This narrow thinking is unacceptable.
The Center for Disease Control reports that 26 percent of the American population are living with a disability. Although there are clinicians with disabilities, there has never been a forum that has allowed them the space to share this. Clinicians may know the existing stigmas that surround disability and fear they may lose patients if they disclose. They may also fear being seen as less capable by their colleagues if they disclose and appear … human. Certainly, there are also those who believe in the supercrip trope that people with disabilities are actually superhuman as portrayed in video games. Clinicians that are disabled are neither victims nor superhuman, but simply human.
In a recent study published by the Journal of American Medical Association, found that 3 percent of physicians identify as having a disability. Fortunately, the culture of medicine is changing, in large part to a growing number of clinicians coming forward to share their stories via social media, podcasts, and other organizations such as “Docs with Disabilities,” @mike_natter, @Okanlami, @PetePoullos, and the National Organization of Nurses with Disabilities.
Additionally, associations and coalitions exist to support students and train educational professionals to work with students with disabilities in post-secondary settings, such as the Coalition for Disability Access in Health Science Education and the Association on Higher Education And Disability.
There is also a growing number of students with disabilities going into medical schools. Consequently, medical colleges need to look at disability as diversity rather than a burden and something the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires an institution to adhere to. This week the American Medical Association took a stand by voting to urge all medical schools to address barriers encountered by medical students with a disability. This historic decision is a tremendous victory in making the dreams of disabled students come true.
Today, more students are disclosing and speaking out about their disability and how their disability is an asset to their way of learning and what they can bring to their field. Across college campuses, more student-led organizations are forming to promote initiatives to identify and remove structural and systematic barriers to ensure equal access in all aspects of the educational experience. While aging clinicians may have had to live in the shadows with their disabilities, we have a new generation of aspiring clinicians who want to be “out” with their disability and share their experiences to bring more representation to their respective fields. It seems like a new generation of real superheroes is in the making.
Marie Lusk is a social worker and disability specialist.
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