Coalition response to 20/20 feature on Doctors with Disabilities
Updated: May 26
A recent 20/20 piece on doctors with disabilities, “The Good Doctors: Brilliance and Bravery,” highlighted the journeys of two physicians and a medical student with physical disabilities. We agree with the episode’s suggestion that these physicians had a great deal to overcome to find their way to medicine, encountering skepticism and prejudice along the way. We also believe these barriers are unnecessary. The Coalition for Disability Access in Health Science and Medical Education (The Coalition), founded in 2014, is working with health science programs to remove attitudinal and structural barriers in training.
We applaud 20/20 for recognizing the value persons with disabilities bring to medicine. As noted in the piece, physicians with disabilities often have unique and positive connections with patients through their shared experience as a patient.
“My disability gives me credibility” - Dr. Tyler Sexton
Research about patients’ perceptions of time spent addressing their concerns was also mentioned. For a physician who is also a wheelchair user, sitting eye-to-eye with patients is the norm. Other benefits of having physicians with disabilities include modeling to patients that disability does not imply inability and the education they can provide peers on the real-life experiences of people with disabilities (although physicians with disabilities should not be required to serve in an educator role or be the sole source of information on the topic). When accommodations or modifications level the playing field, only one thing matters. As Elizabeth Vargas noted regarding Dr. McCulloh, “It’s all about his surgical skill.”
The 20/20 piece uncovers some common misperceptions about the abilities of persons with disabilities and the barriers they face. For example, in his story Dr. Tyler Sexton discussed the advisors who told him he could not become a physician because his physical appearance would dissuade patients. Pre-health advisors are a critical stakeholder in the medical school pipeline, and efforts should be made to correct these and other misperceptions about physicians with disabilities.
The assistive devices used by physicians in the clinic to support their work was also discussed. In the case of Dr. Chris McCulloh, a standing wheelchair is a tool he uses to access patients during surgery. While a standing wheelchair is not an option for all wheelchair users, this tool demonstrates the power of an accommodation to level the playing field and give a physician sufficient access to perform surgery. For Dr. Sexton, a service animal provides support in balance to allow him to walk freely in the hospital setting. Misperceptions abound regarding the legal and sanitary use of service animals and the use of other accommodations in the clinical setting. These are precisely the types of issues discussed within the Coalition that lead to education for health science programs on the legality and benefits of specific, effective accommodations and assistive devices. These examples represent only a few of the many assistive devices and accommodations that ensure learners and physicians with disabilities have equal access in clinical settings.
Many medical students and physicians with disabilities unfortunately experience exceptional difficulty identifying and accessing appropriate supports for the clinical setting. At times, this difficulty is grounded in lack of knowledge on the part of the program. Resources to aid programs in better understanding how to support learners with disabilities are available from organizations such as the Coalition, The Society of Physicians with Disabilities, The National Organization for Nurses with Disabilities (NOND), The Association for Medical Professionals with Hearing Loss (AMPHL), The Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC), and the Association for Disability in Higher Education (AHEAD).
The 20/20 piece was a prelude to a new ABC show, “The Good Doctor,” about the experiences of a young doctor who is an autistic savant, although it should be noted that savant syndrome is very rare even among individuals with autism. Our hope is that the show accurately portrays the barriers experienced by physicians with disabilities. Most importantly, we are optimistic that it will bring an awareness to the benefits of employing physicians with disabilities and advancing this population in health care professions. The Coalition’s mission shares this goal: to develop, advance, and disseminate leading practices to facilitate access and opportunity for people with disabilities in health science education. We enact change by providing education and community for disability service providers, faculty, and staff to further best practices for disability inclusion in health science programs. Over 500 health science faculty, administrators, and disability providers are members of the Coalition, and we invite all members of the broader health science education community to join us in our mission at www.hsmcoalition.org.
Together, we can ensure that stories like those featured on 20/20 are not the exception, rather, they are the norm.
Board of Directors, The Coalition