Do the ivory towers need ramps

December 24, 2002

Doctors are among the first to recognize that physical disabilities can occur at any point in an individual's life, but even medical school faculty members facing the onset of such a disability often keep it secret for as long as possible, fearing discrimination from their colleagues and academic officials when it becomes known.

That concern underscores the experience and expectations of disabled medical faculty as they persevere in their careers with "a silent and lonely tenacity," according to findings of a paper to be published in the December 25 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA).

"Anecdotal reports suggest that many medical faculty members with disabilities decide against making their condition known because they fear reprisals, particularly the loss of professional opportunities such as tenured positions," said Annie G. Steinberg, MD, of the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine. Steinberg co-authored the study with Lisa I. Iezzoni, MD, MSc, of the Department of Medicine at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and Harvard Medical School in Boston, Mass.

"Faculty members with disabilities bring a wealth of personal insight and experience to medical teaching, but they must be made to feel as welcome, comfortable and secure as their able-bodied colleagues. They are neither super-heroes nor more vulnerable than their peers, but only require legally-mandated accommodations to succeed, " Steinberg added. "Through the daily example of their lives, they may remind students, residents and attending colleagues that medicine is about more than diagnosis, treatment and cure -- it requires an understanding of chronic illnesses that affect 100 million Americans."

The research paper, which is being published as a "special communication" in JAMA, is an outgrowth of the Penn Initiative 2000 project to examine quality of life issues for the university's faculty. Steinberg, Iezzoni, and their colleagues broadened their original work to encompass seven medical schools throughout the country.

The findings raise questions of access and convenience for academic medical professionals with disabilities as they function within a political and social context that the authors describe as increasingly challenging. The 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act, for example, offers no specific accommodation standards but instead mandates "reasonable" efforts by employers that will cause them no "undue hardship," thus leaving room for various legal interpretations.

For the nation's medical schools, the resulting legal ambiguity is translated into a wide range of responses -- from supportive teaching environments to professional isolation. Often, disabled faculty face huge challenges that escape the notice even of sympathetic colleagues. One faculty member who uses a wheelchair told researchers she had to refrain from eating or drinking at a reception where she was the honoree because the auditorium where the function was held had no wheelchair-accessible restroom. Another said the head of her department will not offer her a tenure-track position out of concern that it would be too stressful, leaving her faced with a year-to-year contract.

According to the survey, disabled medical faculty want their institutions to move past those sorts of oversights and misplaced, sterotype-based concerns. They believe they could compete for promotions more successfully with limited changes in academic criteria, such as extended timelines for professional promotions and promotion criteria that de-emphasize extensive travel. They also believe they could benefit in their work from improvements in physical access to teaching, research and clinical sites, and the opportunity to modify their clinical and teaching schedules.

"Now that we recognize these needs, academic medicine's response to them will be a true indication of the values and empathy we offer as members of the healing profession," Steinberg said. "It will also be part of the legacy of example we will leave for those who come after us, and one real measure of how we, ourselves, can expect to be treated by medical professionals in the future."

Penn faculty also participating as researchers for the survey were Alicia Conill, MD, of the Department of Medicine, and Margaret Stineman, MD, FACRM, of the Department of Rehabilitation Medicine. The study was conducted through volunteer time and efforts.

University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine

Related Disabilities Articles from Brightsurf:

College students with disabilities at greater risk for substance abuse
College students with physical and cognitive disabilities use illicit drugs more, and have a higher prevalence of drug use disorder, than their non-disabled peers, according to a Rutgers study.

Asthma among children with developmental disabilities
How common asthma was among children with various developmental disabilities (including attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, autism spectrum disorder and vision, hearing or speech delay) was compared to children without disabilities in this survey study.

Children with developmental disabilities more likely to develop asthma
Children with developmental disabilities or delay are more at risk of developing asthma, according to a new study published in JAMA Network Open led by public health researchers at The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth) as part of the Center for Pediatric Population Health.

Self-help groups empower caregivers of children with disabilities
Caregivers in low-income settings will be able to respond to the challenges of bringing up children with disabilities, thanks to a new model created by the University of East Anglia (UEA) and the Kenya Medical Research Institute (KEMRI).

Unintended pregnancy rates higher among women with disabilities, study says
Pregnancies among women with disabilities are 42% more likely to be unintended than pregnancies among women without disabilities, says a new report published in the journal Perspectives on Sexual and Reproductive Health.

More medical students are telling their schools about disabilities, and getting a response
The percentage of medical students who told their schools that they have a disability rose sharply in recent years, a new study shows.

The unpopular truth about biases toward people with disabilities
Needing to ride in a wheelchair can put the brakes on myriad opportunities -- some less obvious than one might think.

How to improve care for patients with disabilities? We need more providers like them
When it comes to patients with disabilities, the chance of getting a clinician 'like them' is extremely low, which may lead to patients' reluctance to seek care or follow prescribed interventions and treatments.

Progress to restore movement in people with neuromotor disabilities
A study published in the advanced edition of April 12, 2019 in the journal Neural Computation shows that approaches based on Long Short-Term Memory decoders could provide better algorithms for neuroprostheses that employ Brain-Machine Interfaces to restore movement in patients with severe neuromotor disabilities.

Certain physical disabilities may affect outcomes in kidney transplant recipients
Compared with kidney transplant recipients who did not report a disability, recipients with a visual disability were at higher risk of organ failure and recipients with a walking disability were at higher risk of early death.

Read More: Disabilities News and Disabilities Current Events is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to