By Christin Senior | May 1, 2017 5:01 pm

The road to medical school is difficult enough, but for medical students with a physical or mental disability such as Asperger’s, the journey is even harder and often littered with roadblocks. Whether it’s just being accepted into a program or needing an elevator to reach a different floor in the clinic, students with disabilities have to navigate through these difficulties.

At a recent Access in Health Science and Medical Symposium at Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City, April 20-21, health educators discussed best practices for making the medical education community more inclusive. During the conference participants heard from leading educators on assistive technology, med school policies and first-hand accounts from med students, including one from UCF.

Class of 2018 student Jessica Fernandez told participants she never let physical challenges get in the way of her dream of becoming a physician, even when she’s sometimes met with curious stares and skepticism. Diagnosed with spondyloepiphyseal dysplasia when she was 3, the rare genetic disorder affects bone growth in the spine, resulting in short stature.

“People sometimes fear what they don’t understand so when you sit with them and you explain to them what they’re wondering, and when they see your openness to answer those questions, you just break that barrier right then and there,” said Fernandez.

Fernandez deals with chronic arthritic pain. During her clinical clerkships, she used a wheelchair to help her get around the large hospitals faster and a stool when she needed extra height. But she refused to be treated any differently than her peers, preferring not to ask for accommodations or special treatment if possible.

She never thought she would become an advocate for people with disabilities in the health field. The rising fourth-year medical student dislikes being called “inspiring” but with her outgoing personality and positive outlook it’s easy see her caring medical professional side.

At first, Fernandez wondered if her condition made fellow students and faculty work harder or delayed their progress. But now she sees what she can offer. “When people see how I approach patients, I’ve seen them change their approach, it’s like a chain reaction… every single team I have worked with has complemented my “weakness” because I’ve been able to complement theirs,” she said.

Dr. Lisa Meeks of the Coalition for Disability Access in Health Science and Medical Education, organized the recent symposium and is the director for medical student disability services at the University of California San Francisco.

Dr. Meeks noted that 20 percent of the population has a disability. “That means one in five people who walk into a medical facility has a disability,” she said, but noted that the medical profession does not reflect the population it serves. Dr. Meeks was so impressed with Fernandez’s story that she asked her to participate in the physician’s Lived Experience Project, which documents how students with disabilities go through medical school.

“There’s a perception in medical education that all doctors have to be perfect and able bodied,” Dr. Meeks said. “What a patient really wants is to connect with their physician, what a patient really wants is, to feel like a human being…
to not feel like they have to be perfect.”

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