Disability in the medical profession: there’s still a long way to go

Every disabled doctor and medical student should have the opportunity to be heard and represented – and it’s everyone’s responsibility to open that door.

Location: UK
Published: Wednesday 18 November 2020

I am delighted to be introducing this series of blogs to celebrate UK Disability History Month. This year’s theme is ‘Access: how far have we come? How far have we got to go?’ In the coming weeks we will be exploring this theme with our guest participants. Here, I offer a few personal reflections on this question and why I think this is such an important issue for the BMA.

How far have we come?

I have been proud of the work the BMA is doing to raise the profile of disability issues in the medical profession. The recent disability survey of over 700 members shows that despite growing awareness of the value of disabled doctors who reflect the diverse patient populations we serve, there is still a long way to go.

It is disappointing that over 77% of respondents felt worried about even telling people about their disability or long-term health condition, and that only two in five felt that being open about their conditions led to improved support. I was struck by the findings that two-thirds of respondents believe there aren’t visible and positive role models for disabled people at a senior level where they work or study. Most worryingly, only around one third (36%) felt comfortable telling people about their disability or health condition because they believed their organisation was disability friendly.

It relies on other people recognising that what may be a simple task for one person can be really difficult

I have dyspraxia. It’s variously categorised as a developmental co-ordination disorder and sometimes as a learning disability. Every person’s experience with dyspraxia is slightly different. For me, it means that I sometimes struggle to get places without preparation and to find rooms without maps in large buildings. Another feature of dyspraxia may be heightened sensitivity to sound, light, touch or certain fabrics. People may find it particularly difficult to cope in a noisy environment or to work in brightly lit areas – often features of our NHS workplaces.

Small changes, like having the name and location of rooms on meeting invites, can make a world of difference to someone like me, but it relies on other people recognising that what may be a simple task for one person can be really difficult for someone with a hidden disability or condition.

The pandemic has in many ways amplified these issues.

At ARM (our annual representative meeting), we heard about the challenges faced by doctors with hearing impairments as they navigate the new normal of face masks, making lip-reading impossible. These are issues for our patients too: when I worked in cares homes for older people, hearing aids were forever getting lost. This led to patients being unable to have valuable conversations with their care providers, a less equitable service with less shared decision-making.

Access can be fragile and easily lost, if we don’t make a conscious effort to think about how all our work can be made accessible and inclusive. 

How far do we have to go?

The common definition of access is ‘the means or opportunity to approach or enter a place’. Often people focus quite narrowly on this, in a literal sense of being physically able to get into a room or a building. But reflecting on this definition, it is the sense of the lack of opportunity to be seen and heard, to be represented, that presents a real challenge in terms of improving access.

As chair of RB (the BMA representative body), I want every disabled doctor and medical student to know that they have that opportunity, if they want it, to participate at the highest levels within the organisation and to have their views represented. It shouldn’t be up to those members to have to bang on the door and demand access. It is everyone’s responsibility to make sure we open that door and welcome everyone in. 

Helena McKeown is BMA representative body chair and equality, diversity and inclusion advisory group chair

Find out how the BMA is working to improve support for medical students and doctors with disabilities and long-term health conditions