'I didn't see me': Medicine needs more role models for those with disability

‘I didn’t see me’: Medicine needs more role models for those with disabilities

Every day in science, something wonderful happens. There are breakthroughs, successful trials, conditions cured, and new medicines developed.

Growing up, it was learning about biology and neuroscience in school and seeing these wondrous accomplishments in media coverage that first interested me to the field. However, something I didn’t see in the media was coverage of women in science who also happened to have a disability. I didn’t see me.

I was born in Sri Lanka in 1994 with athetoid cerebral palsy. In my birthplace, I was told by doctors that I would never walk or talk. My parents immigrated to Australia when I was two to give me a better life and I was able to improve my speech and motor functions through the (more) advanced Australian medical system. I can now walk and talk.

And – after years of application and hard work – I’m a current PhD candidate at Victoria University in the biomedical sciences, investigating how and if brain stimulation and strength training can improve motor outcomes for adults with spastic cerebral palsy. I am also a fierce advocate for an inclusive medical profession.

But there are hurdles that accompany having a disability in medicine. Handwriting made medical school entry requirements like the GAMSAT test are merely impossible, clinical requirements are somewhat inflexible or inaccessible, and there is a stigma associated with people with disability that I challenge every day. However, there are few doctors who have acquired their disability while in medical school and are successfully practising medicine with support and technology adaptions.

I really want medical schools to create alternative pathways for students with a disability (similar to the ones offered to indigenous students) that can ensure that disadvantage is accounted for and that the student is accepted on their individual merit and abilities. We deserve equal opportunity and dignity.

There are plenty of ways to test a person’s capabilities to become a doctor and medical schools need to start recognising this. I think that doctors and scientists really have something special to offer – the special compassion and empathy from people with disability would be a true asset.

Recent research by Mable – a profit-for-purpose digital platform that I connect with independent support workers on to transport me to places, guide me in the kitchen when I am preparing meals, and work on skills that make me more independent – found that 87% of people with disability wish those living without one knew how to better interact with them. 

Little things like using the right language can create a sense of empowerment, pride, identity and purpose. Once open, non-stigmatised conversation between people with disability and those without is struck, wider representation of people with disability in the community can be achieved.

Around 4.4 million Australians identify as having a disability, however if I think about the media I consume on a daily basis, there are definitely fewer than 1-in-5 of the people profiled that have a disability. There’s no wonder that 98% of those in the Mable survey want greater representation of people with disability in media.

We all need role models that we can relate to, and so I hope my story – the story of a determined woman who will become the first candidate with a PhD in biomedical sciences with cerebral palsy to gain admission into medical school – inspires other people to celebrate the successes of people with disability in their community.

In the areas of sport, the consensus by my peers is that there’s a bit more representation of people with disability (24.75% rated sport as ‘well’ or ‘very well’ represented in the survey) though in other areas representation was ‘poor’ or ‘very poor’, such as in business (79.2%), music (77.22%), and movies and film (73.26%).

This International Day of People with Disability, I want people to know that having a disability does not mean I’m unable do what my peers without disability can; it just means I need a bit of extra support. My condition has allowed me to apply an unmatched empathy toward my patients, as I understand what life with a chronic health condition can be like.

When I was younger, I wished I could have a doctor with similar life experiences to my own. Having someone who could relate to me personally as well as via my condition, and who could accept me as I was, despite my challenges, would have helped me to envision this future that I have built for myself.

As a person with disability, seeing people similar to yourself thrive in the community and have their goals recognised in the media can make the aspirations you have for yourself seem achievable. It can help to bust myths and remove judgement from those without disability, too, and we all know the world could use a little more understanding.

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