I Use A Wheelchair. And Yes, I’m Your Doctor

This blog was originally published in the New York Times.

When I was in the third year of my medical residency, I was asked to evaluate a new state-of-the-art, fully accessible exam table that would be used in doctors’ offices to better provide care for patients with mobility-related disabilities. The table could go as low as 18 inches off the ground to enable easier transfers for wheelchair users and had extra rails and grips to provide support for patients with impaired balance.

I was to assess this equipment as a “user expert.” Although the table was designed to accommodate patients with disabilities, I rolled up to it to evaluate it from the perspective of a physician. “Do you want my opinion as a patient, or as a doctor?” I asked the surprised representatives from the medical equipment company.

I have been a wheelchair user since early childhood, when I sustained a spinal cord injury in a farming accident. I am now a practicing physician in the field of rehabilitation and sports medicine.

In my busy outpatient clinical practice, I witness the spectrum of patients’ reactions when they find out that their doctor is, herself, disabled. Typically those first few seconds after entering an exam room — before the patient’s guard goes up — are the most informative.

I find that these reactions are somewhat generational. Younger patients, having grown up amid a growing awareness of disability in society, typically do not react at all. They have clearly encountered empowered people with disabilities working in various professional roles. Older patients often seem confused, curious or, in rare circumstances, dismayed.

Several months ago, I wheeled into the room of an elderly woman. She looked at me, placed her hand on mine and, with a kind look asked, “Are you an invalid?” More recently, a jovial older man exclaimed, “You’ve got to be kidding me!” A few times, patients will hesitate to tell me their concerns, indicating “Well, doc, I feel bad complaining about this to you, when clearly your problems are bigger than mine.”

Several years ago, while in my residency, I was in line at our hospital cafeteria. Although my badge reading “Dr. Blauwet” and stethoscope were clearly visible, a man next to me in line said: “You look like you are doing pretty well. When are you going to be discharged?” Clearly, my wheelchair was the only thing he saw. Moreover, he equated my wheelchair with illness, rather than empowerment.

Over the years, I’ve thought a lot about situations like these, and I do not believe they come so much from direct prejudice as from people’s lack of experience with doctors who are also wheelchair users. A recent study revealed that less than 3 percent of medical school trainees are people with disabilities, and of these, only a small proportion are individuals with mobility impairment. How can we expect our patients or colleagues to know about the perspectives and needs of physicians with disabilities when we remain invisible to them?

The reason for this underrepresentation is complicated. Most physicians with mobility disabilities will tell you that the problem is not that we lack the ability to do our job competently. As with many other educated, skilled professionals, we know how to choose a path that suits our talents and abilities. Reasonable accommodations, such as the use of standing wheelchairs in the operating room, give us the access we need to do our work. The larger barrier to entry for prospective doctors with disabilities, however, is bias, both overt and hidden.

A colleague who is quadriplegic recounted a medical school admissions officer telling him, “I’m afraid that you will not meet the technical standards for admission.” Although steeped in bias and probably illegal, this response was at least more direct than the more common form of discrimination where otherwise strong applicants with disabilities simply do not receive an interview or a call back. As our peers are accepted into prestigious schools and academic positions, we sit on the sidelines, left to question whether the fault lies with us or the system. Many give up their aspirations of a career in medicine altogether, electing to pursue work more “traditionally suited” for people with disabilities. Others lose sleep, questioning whether it was the right decision to disclose their disability in the application materials.

Anyone can enter, at any time, the minority group of people with disabilities. The most common cause of new, adult-onset disability is — simply put — aging. Physicians are often reluctant to disclose new-onset or progressive disability (like loss of hearing or vision, or reduced mobility) because of the fear of being stigmatized; medicine, after all, is still dominated by the prototype of physical prowess.

Dr. Lisa Iezzoni, a professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, has been an important mentor to me for many years. She recounted her experience as a medical student at Harvard in the early 1980s, a decade before the passage of the Americans With Disabilities Act. In her first year at the medical school, after experiencing some physical and sensory symptoms, she was given a diagnosis of multiple sclerosis. Late in her third year, after a fall, she started using a cane, but her aspirations to pursue an internal medicine residency remained, despite the overt discouragement she received. At a student-faculty dinner, an influential professor told her: “There are too many doctors in the country right now for us to worry about training a handicapped physician. If that means someone gets left by the wayside, that’s too bad.”

The medical school refused to write a letter of recommendation for her residency application, so she could not pursue the training required for clinical practice. She pursued health policy research instead and became the first female professor of medicine at the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and now directs the Mongan Institute Health Policy Center at Massachusetts General Hospital. Despite having had an extraordinarily successful career, she sometimes wonders what could have been if she had been able to practice medicine.

My experience, more than two decades later, was vastly different. As an undergraduate at the University of Arizona, I became interested in applying to medical school. I investigated the application process and took coursework that would set me up for success. I studied, networked, did internships and engaged in various activities that would strengthen my application. Additionally, throughout this time, I nurtured my alter ego as an athlete, pursuing the sport of wheelchair racing, and ultimately represented the United States in three Paralympic Games.

In the fall of 2002, I applied to medical school, received interviews at several prestigious universities and was accepted to the Stanford University School of Medicine. Throughout this process, I never once feared that my disability would get in the way of success. I could focus on my academic performance rather than expending mental energy around concerns of hidden bias.

As a member of the “A.D.A. generation,” I was blissfully ignorant that my visible disability could, in fact, derail my success. I simply assumed that I would be evaluated on merit, like my peers. (I also realized that my athletic success perhaps made me seem more “able.”) I now understand the privilege of that perspective. I cannot completely separate my disability identity from my professional role.

People with disabilities often express fear or dissatisfaction with our health care system because they face poor access and discriminatory attitudes. This must change. Perhaps having more doctors with disabilities is one solution. As with any underrepresented group in medicine, professional diversity should reflect our population’s diversity. That simple change can bring awareness, empathy and a shared experience that ultimately makes all of us better.