Lots of students who have a disability will face challenges in daily life and, more specifically, when studying for a university degree. Students may believe that having a disability, whether physical or mental, will hinder, or even prevent them from practicing medicine due to the nature of the courses and the career itself. In many cases, however, this is simply not true. Most medical schools will put reasonable steps in place in order to account for students with a disability.
The DDA (Disability Discrimination Act) defines a person as having a disability ‘if he or she has a physical or mental impairment which has a substantial and long-term adverse effect on his or her ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities’. Similarly the World Health Organisation describes a disability as a ‘deleterious change in normal structure or function, leading to activity limitation – a difficulty in performing some task or action and, so, participation restriction – a limitation in dealing with life situations.’
Many Medical Schools see disability as a strength rather than a weakness. This is due to the empathetic nature of a doctor. The University of Sheffield states that ‘Your personal experience with disability can give you greater insight into the lives of many of your patients, and make you better equipped to assist them as a doctor. As a consequence, we welcome applications from disabled people.’
Unless your disability is debilitating, it is unlikely be an influencing factor in your acceptance to Medical School. Different Medical Schools have different policies towards disability. In 2006, 29 out of 31 Medical Schools had an explicit entry requirement that applicants ‘must have the capability to be fit to practise at the end of the course.’ The health assessment, which is carried out to ensure that this criteria is met, is designed to assess a student’s physical capacity to complete the course, and to enable Medical Schools to put allowances in place to help. Make sure you contact each Medical School you are applying to, and find out about their disability policy. It is also very important that you disclose your disability on your UCAS application, so universities are aware of your circumstances.
GMC guidelines state that ‘A disability… need not be a bar to becoming a doctor if the student can fulfil the rigorous demands of professional fitness to practise as a newly qualified doctor. Students with disabilities should seek advice from medical schools well before the deadline for UCAS submission so that their individual circumstances can be considered.’
Remember, you will also be able to gain financial help through the Disabled Students Allowance, which will help significantly, not only in your studies, but with student life in general.
Medical Schools will try and to balance the rights of the applicant against the rights of the patients. The GMC states that ‘an applicant to medical school should be rejected only where there is substantial evidence that they will be unable to attain the necessary competencies or will pose a risk to patient safety.’ The 2010 Equality Act dictates that Universities must make ‘reasonable adjustments’ to enable disabled people to study effectively.
There can be instances where Medical Schools may have to turn away an applicant because of their disabilities, but these are extreme cases. For example, a student may not be offered a place if, they suffer from a serious infectious condition which could be passed on to patients, or if they were blind and were thus unable to carry out visual tasks. Disabilities such as slight hearing loss can be easily accommodated with hearing loops in lecture halls, and more powerful stethoscopes.
The most common disability which is disclosed in the UCAS form is dyslexia, a learning disability which is usually easily accommodated on degrees of any subject. Those with limited mobility, such as students in wheelchairs, are unlikely to be denied the right to study Medicine, as not all medical professions require swift movement.
Despite a historical reluctance by the medical profession to accept more disabled students, the system is changing, allowing for more opportunities for those who may not have received them before. Medical Schools are now required by law to put measures in place to help students who suffer from a disability. In one case, back in 2001, a wheelchair bound student, who had broken his back climbing Ben Nevis, was accepted to study at St George’s Hospital Medical School. At the time, the university wasn’t wheelchair accessible, so, to accommodate the student, a leg was cut from the dissecting table so a wheelchair could fit underneath.
Another example of how the rights of disabled doctors are changing is the work of Dr Satendra Singh, who has devoted his life to improving attitudes to and practices for disability in medicine in India. Singh contracted poliomyelitis at an early age, but did not let this deter him from a practising medicine. People are becoming increasingly aware of disability in medicine, meaning that there is now more scope for disabled doctors to practise and discuss their rights.
Applying to Medical School is daunting for any student regardless of disability, but as long as you take the right steps, you will find that the support and information you need is there.
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