Triumph in Transparency: Using My Disability as a Strength

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PMY 534: Triumph in Transparency: Using My Disability as a Strength

Session 534

We delve into a conversation with a student who has a physical disability. The student reflects on her decision to be more open and transparent about her struggles and disability during the application process for medical school. Together, let’s explore her journey and the impact this decision had on her path to medicine!

For more podcast resources to help you with your medical school journey and beyond, check out Meded Media.

Listen to this podcast episode with the player above, or keep reading for the highlights and takeaway points.

[01:06] The MCAT Minute

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[02:17] What Can Be Changed to Make the Application Process Easier

Staying true to oneself must be emphasized to avoid the pressure to conform to societal expectations is key when pursuing a pre-medical career. Students can draw from personal experiences that will allow reflections on the mistakes made because of excessively prioritizing pre-med requirements. In doing so, a student can pursue one’s genuine interests.

By following your passions and engaging in activities you truly love, the natural passion for medicine will emerge. Always prioritize personal interests and fascinations to foster a genuine passion for the medical field.

[04:22] Acknowledging One’s Limitation

There are limitations that she faced due to her disability when it came to pursuing certain activities, such as being an EMT, which many other pre-med students were able to do. The feeling of being left out and insecure during her freshman year, worrying about fulfilling clinical requirements, and gaining experience was an everyday reality. However, she had to get creative and find alternative ways to gain clinical experience that accommodated her physical abilities.

These limitations relieved her from the pressure of conforming to the traditional checkboxes and allowed her to focus on doing what she genuinely enjoyed.

By pursuing activities she was passionate about, she was able to showcase her dedication and commitment, which ultimately helped her in her journey toward medical school. Perspectives can shift over time and the realization that the initial insecurities and doubts felt as a freshman can transform into gratitude for the path taken.

“I do think because I picked things that I really liked, and that I could genuinely put my whole heart into and make an effort in, I do think that ended up coming through”Click To Tweet

[05:52] Seeking Guidance and Support

The experience of seeking guidance and support while facing the challenges of having a disability is really hard. There is a lack of understanding among advisors and mentors about how to navigate the application process with a disability. There are advisors who worked hard and gave support. There was also uncertainty about how admission committees would perceive disability and how one should present oneself to them.

General advising was not entirely helpful in this situation, so one had to get creative. The student found solace in the process of cold emailing, realizing that everyone goes through it and that it made her feel more relatable. She decided to focus on research initially, as she believed clinical opportunities might be more competitive and less accommodating to her limitations. Fortunately, she was able to secure a research position at her university’s medical school, which aligned with her interest in osteoporosis research.

Through these experiences, the student began to build trust. She was able to meet people face-to-face and showcase her character and personality alongside her disability, As a result, she was able to access clinical opportunities. Additionally, there were advantages of having established connections from high school that led to her internship opportunity during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Start small, prioritize getting in front of decision-makers, and demonstrate dedication and ability to work hard despite one’s physical limitations.

“Once you get in front of somebody and they get to know you and see you and you actually get to put more of a character personality behind the disability, they start to trust you a little bit more.”Click To Tweet

[09:04] The Challenges of Communication

There are challenges faced by individuals with disabilities in navigating conversations about their condition and advocating for themselves. The pressure that comes with constantly explaining and advocating for their needs can be overwhelming. These conversations come with difficulty, especially in initial meetings or when transitioning from virtual to in-person interactions, where their disability becomes more apparent.

There are mixed reactions and uncertainty among others regarding offering help or accommodation. She prefers being asked if she needs assistance but also acknowledges her ability to ask for help when necessary.  

Striking a balance between receiving support and not being overly accommodated or treated differently due to their disability is what she always aspires to.

She can handle tasks on her own and be independent but acknowledges having conversations about their needs is the most challenging and can be awkward. There is a need to effectively communicate that they are okay but may require assistance without being overly dependent or restricted.

“The hardest part of being disabled is ultimately to be able to get the opportunities that I got. I had to be comfortable with talking about advocating for myself. And it's not an easy conversation to have.”Click To Tweet

[12:07] Questions to Understand Disability

Children often ask amusing and innocent questions, while adults’ questions vary based on their field or background. Researchers ask scientific questions about the molecular aspects of their condition, while professors may ask more practical questions about accommodations such as sitting in the front row or using the elevator.

Any question is valid and encourages transparency. She expresses a preference for people to ask about her condition directly rather than starting or making assumptions.

[14:54] On How Social Media Exposes Disability

Social media has a big impact on exposing more people to individuals with disabilities. While social media has its drawbacks, it has also facilitated transparency and started important conversations, particularly within the disabled community.

Social media allows people to see a wide range of disabilities and understand that each person’s experience is unique. Showcasing how individuals with disabilities live their lives promotes open dialogue and emphasizes that disabled individuals are no different from others, aside from facing some challenges.

We should support the positive conversations and increased awareness that social media has brought about.

[15:58] The Process of Application

The student shares her experience with the application process for medical school as a student with a disability. She was confused and received conflicting advice regarding how to address her disability in her personal statement and secondary essays. Some sources suggested being open about it, while others warned against portraying any limitations.

Her advisor’s vague guidance created frustration and difficulty of trying to navigate writing an essay that acknowledges her disability but also emphasizes her abilities. The challenge was in connecting her experiences and motivations to the core competencies expected in the application.

Despite the uncertainty, she ultimately decided to be authentic and tell her story. She acknowledged that medicine was her true passion and that her disability provided her with a unique perspective and effective communication skills. She hopes that others won’t be discouraged by the prevailing advice to downplay one’s disabilities.

Finding schools that value your added perspective and offer accommodations is very vital. Getting accepted into medical school is just the beginning, and one needs to anticipate the challenges you will face as a student with a disability.

“The schools that want you will want you for that added perspective. And ultimately, those schools will also be the schools that are accommodating for you and make your experience at medical school easier.”Click To Tweet

[21:59] To Talk About It or Not Talk About It?

Students with disabilities often face two options when applying to medical school. The first option is to avoid talking about their disability in their application, hoping to be accepted by any school. However, this can lead to attending a school that does not provide the necessary accommodations and support. The second option is to be completely open about one’s disability in the application.

The entire application revolves around the disability. But it allows schools to understand and value the student’s capabilities. They have to be aware of their needs and provide appropriate accommodations. It can be likened to calling ahead to an emergency room, where the hospital is aware of the incoming trauma patient and prepares accordingly.

Being open about the disability may result in rejections from some schools due to bias. But it also ensures acceptance from schools that appreciate the student’s abilities and are willing to support them.

[24:22] On Technical Standards

Medical schools have set technical standards. These are a set of physical, emotional, and mental health capacities that applicants are expected to meet to be successful in the medical school application process, and eventually, as a student in the program. Some schools have specific and detailed technical standards, outlining the physical abilities required for tasks like CPR or handling physical tasks during rotations.

By reading the technical standards, she was able to narrow down her list of potential schools based on her own capabilities. She shares that she reached out to schools to seek clarification on the technical standards, as she understood that being ADA accessible and providing genuine accommodations are two different things.

Not all schools may be able to provide the necessary accommodations for her specific needs, even if they claim to be accessible. There are challenges and disappointments that will arise during the application process. Sometimes, there are certain schools that may not be able to accommodate your needs. And this can lead to a sense of loss and disappointment even beforereceiving a decision.

“You have to be prepared for it… You are going to be hit with disappointment, not only disappointment of rejection… but the disappointment of rejection before even getting to try.”Click To Tweet

[29:39] Dealing With Disappointment

It can be challenging not to feel disappointed in people, especially in a healthcare setting where physicians are being trained to care for others.

This student has faced disappointments from individuals within the medical field who doubted her ability to pursue medicine due to her disability. She became less affected by disappointments as she has grown older. But it still hurts when people in the field express skepticism about her capabilities.

Receiving such comments from medical residents, medical students, or physician assistants made her question whether they were on the wrong path. Early rejections from schools further intensified her feelings of disappointment and the realization that her options were narrowing. Not having a backup plan in a field they are passionate about adds to the weight of these disappointments.

[31:34] Handling Inappropriate Questions in Interviews

This student received a total of 11 interview invitations. She recalls having had interviewers who asked inappropriate questions. There was even an instance where one questioned why they hadn’t become an EMT despite opportunities available at their school. This led to the uncomfortable situation where the interviewer questioned her ability to keep up at their medical school.

She questioned whether the interviewer’s intention was to genuinely assess her response or intentionally rattle her with a difficult question. She then ended up having internal panic and trying to maintain composure while conveying her capabilities despite the interviewer’s assumptions.

[33:39] Going Through the 11 Interviews

The student thinks the interview process went well. She was open about her disability in her primary personal statement and secondary essays. She was able to talk about her experiences in college that were not solely based on her disability, but rather the opportunities she pursued and the characteristics they helped develop.

Presenting oneself as more than just one’s disability and showcasing one’s motivation to become a doctor along with other relevant experiences is key. Most interviewers, being physicians themselves, were receptive, kind, and willing to engage in meaningful conversations during the interviews.

This student thinks the key to her success in the application was her transparency. Her success in college wasn’t fully based on her disability. So she used that as her base in picking experiences.

“I was able to talk about each of those experiences disconnected from my disability. And that allowed me to have the motivation of why I wanted to become a doctor”Click To Tweet

[36:55] How it Felt Getting Accepted

Upon opening the email and realizing it was an admissions decision, she gasped and immediately turned her computer around to show her friends. Most schools would call, adding another layer of excitement.

A tradition with her friends was created where they would celebrate each milestone by making a card with the school mascot of the accepted person and then going to eat a brownie at a specific place. It was a good day and it was enjoyable celebrating the little milestones along the journey.

[38:14] On Accommodations

The student has been engaging in in-depth conversations about accommodations with the schools she has been accepted into. The schools have been accommodating and kind. They have been discussing her specific needs such as accessibility during icy conditions, and the ability to miss classes or events when necessary. They also discussed the availability of wheelchairs, and access to chairs in certain locations.

She has been having meetings with the disability accommodations offices of each school, and she is grateful for the receptive and supportive nature of those offices.

[39:21] Message to People with Disability Planning to  Apply to Med School

If someone with a disability wants to become a physician, your experiences growing up with a disability, whether visible or invisible, will shape your passion and make you a more empathetic and compassionate physician. 

Acknowledge that there will be challenges and it won’t be easy. But it is important to be comfortable with yourself. Be transparent about the disability, and don’t let others dictate your limitations.

Self-advocacy and the internal battle and the effort you put into being comfortable and advocating for yourself will pay off, even if others may not recognize it. Know your own body and limitations best, and you will have the power to overcome obstacles and succeed in your chosen path.

“Ultimately, know your limitations, know how to battle them, and you can best advocate for yourself and you just have to be comfortable with that.”Click To Tweet


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