Mayo Clinic Alumni Association | ‘It can be done:’ Mayo Clinic School of Medicine evolves, accommodating a student’s disabilities

When Leah Grengs Thompson, M.D. (MED ’17), was 6 years old, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) became law. The ADA prohibits discrimination against individuals with disabilities in all areas of public life including jobs, schools, transportation.

leah grengs thompson

Leah, age 11

When Dr. Thompson was 11, she had a hemorrhagic stroke due to a benign brain tumor. Despite surgery, rehabilitation and years of therapy, she has permanent deficits including left-sided leg and arm weakness and significant vision loss.

Thanks to the ADA, she was accommodated through the years of her education but accepted that she was unable to do some things — play sports and drive, for example. She says she found her niche while volunteering at a Twin Cities hospital, near where she grew up.

“I hadn’t felt like I could do anything particularly well,” she says. “That changed when I started at the hospital. I loved working with patients and their families.

“I always assumed I wasn’t smart enough to be a doctor. My parents hadn’t gone to college, and I didn’t personally know anyone in medicine. When I started college and studied biology, I realized I was smart enough and became determined to go to medical school.”

A thriving undergrad

Dr. Thompson thrived at the University of Minnesota — inside and outside of the classroom —and earned bachelor’s degrees in neuroscience and anthropology and graduated summa cum laude. She received numerous scholarships:

  • Pediatric Brain Tumor Scholarship
  • Children’s Hospitals and Clinics of Minnesota Volunteer Services Scholarship
  • College of Biological Sciences Volunteer Award
  • University of Minnesota Access Abroad Scholarship
  • University of Minnesota Learning Abroad Center Scholarship
  • University of Minnesota Women’s Club Stephanie R. Boddy Scholarship
  • University of Minnesota Women’s Club Doris Doeden Scholarship
  • J.A. Wedum Foundation Scholarship
  • University of Minnesota President’s Student Leadership and Service Award

She traveled to Bolivia to assist in establishing clinics in impoverished rural communities and tutored at a homeless shelter in Minneapolis.

Dr. Thompson took the MCAT three times. “In college, I’d always sought accommodations and gotten extra time for exams due to my vision problems,” she says. “I was stubborn and didn’t ask for accommodations in taking the MCAT. I studied hard yet did poorly. I had trouble reading the passages. After I applied for accommodations, I did very well.”

Despite her successes, Dr. Thompson says she was so worried she wouldn’t get accepted to medical school due to her disabilities that she applied to 40 schools, using up all of her savings.

“I read the technical standards of the schools I applied to. They were difficult to interpret and understand,” she says. “I let all of the schools I interviewed at know about my physical limitations in advance. At a few schools, including Mayo, I met with a specialist to discuss my situation. This told me they took it seriously and would likely work to accommodate me.

“Mayo was where I really wanted to go. I jumped up and down when I was accepted.”

A self-accepting med school student

mayo clinic school of medicine

Leah Grengs Thompson, M.D., on Match Day

Dr. Thompson says she was shy at first with her medical school classmates. “I didn’t want to appear to need extra help or extra time for exams,” she says. “At Mayo Clinic, I learned to be more open and accepting of myself. Sometimes I can’t believe how lucky I am to have been able to go to medical school and do exactly what I want to do.”

To be able to do exactly what she wanted, though, is part of the spirit of the ADA.

A place of public accommodation

mayo clinic school of medicine

Robin Molella, M.D.

“Education is a place of public accommodation because we believe everyone has a right to be educated,” says Robin Molella, M.D. (MED ’90, I ’97, PREV ’99), director of Health, Disability & Accommodations for Mayo Clinic School of Medicine and a consultant in the Division of Preventive, Occupational and Aerospace Medicine at Mayo Clinic in Rochester. “The ADA started learning institutions down this path almost 30 years ago.”

Dr. Molella says Mayo Clinic School of Medicine has a history of accommodating individuals and, compared to other medical training institutions, “We’re quite far in this journey,” she says. “However, it’s not far enough. There’s pervasive ableism in medicine. And there’s a new desire to think about whether or not we’re doing everything we can to make our physician workforce as diverse as possible. Are we opening the doors of medical schools to more and more highly competent people who would be fabulous physicians?”

According to a recent New York Times story, more than 20 percent of the American population has a disability but as few as 2 percent of practicing physicians do. Most of those physicians acquired their disabilities after completing their medical training. Additionally, few people with disabilities are admitted to medical school, and those who are have higher attrition rates than nondisabled students. Why? Because they don’t always receive the support they need despite the ADA. Further, only one-third of medical schools explicitly state their support of accommodations for disabilities on their websites.

Every medical school determines its own technical standards, the cognitive and physical abilities required for admission. Mayo Clinic College of Medicine and Science has a robust Accommodation for Disabilities policy, which states that it will make reasonable effort to accommodate students, residents, fellows and postgraduates with disabilities as defined in Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. Any student with a physical, psychiatric, sensory or learning disability may request reasonable accommodations after providing adequate documentation from appropriate licensed professionals to the Mayo Clinic College of Medicine.

“What do providers really need to be able to do?” asks Dr. Molella. “We must continuously ask what learners need to accomplish in medical school to define them as a physician. Not every physician needs the dexterity of a surgeon. If you plan to become an adult neurologist, must you catch babies in OB rotation? Are you disqualified if you can’t hold retractors for hours in surgery? How much of the shared training legacy in medical education is really necessary? We need to challenge our assumptions and better accommodate completely competent individuals with technology, for example, to ensure a diverse workforce.”

Working step by step, technical standard by technical standard to accommodate

Dr. Molella says Mayo Clinic School of Medicine was fully aware of Dr. Thompson’s limitations when she was admitted. “But we weren’t sure how we’d make it work,” she admits.

mayo clinic school of medicine

Alexandra Wolanskyj-Spinner, M.D.

Alexandra Wolanskyj-Spinner, M.D., (I ’95, HEMO ’98), senior associate dean for student affairs for Mayo Clinic School of Medicine since 2013 and a consultant in the Division of Hematology at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, had not yet encountered a student with physical challenges quite like Dr. Thompson’s when she entered the medical school.

“I saw this extremely bright, talented person pursuing medicine for the right reasons,” says Dr. Wolanskyj-Spinner. “How could we best help her to succeed?”

Dr. Wolanskyj-Spinner arranged for Dr. Thompson to meet with two Mayo physicians who have physical challenges to discuss how they have succeeded. She also arranged for the new medical student to meet with the student health and disabilities accommodations officer, Dr. Molella.

“Step by step, technical standard by technical standard, they came up with creative ways to help Leah succeed,” says Dr. Wolanskyj-Spinner, a consultant in the Division of Hematology.

She says, increasingly, students with disabilities will be applying for medical school. “They’ve been accommodated through higher education because of the ADA, and they want the same opportunities as anyone else. They’ll be our colleagues. This presents an opportunity for greater understanding and a shift in our education and culture. Mayo Clinic always spearheads the noblest of intentions.”

An evolving medical school

leah grengs thompson

Leah Grengs Thompson, M.D., at graduation with Fredric Meyer, M.D., executive dean for education, Mayo Clinic College of Medicine and Science

Dr. Thompson’s medical school journey wasn’t without bumps. A resident judged her harshly as a result of her physical limitation in an evaluation, using language that Dr. Wolanskyj-Spinner describes as judgmental and insensitive. “I asked the clerkship director to look at the evaluation and determine if it had unfairly affected Leah’s grade. He agreed it was inappropriate and changed the grade to reflect her overall performance. Situations like that provide us with opportunities to learn and better educate all of our learners and faculty members. Leah helped us look at ourselves and our practices, and we evolved and became more open minded. She took us to a place of greater possibilities and acceptance. We developed and standardized new processes and can better serve our diverse students in this regard, which is a priority for our school.”

According to Dr. Wolanskyj-Spinner, Dr. Thompson’s effect on how the school approaches disabilities is only a small part of her legacy. “Leah was integral to many initiatives to improve the quality of life for our students. She played important leadership and advocacy roles including serving on the Student Life and Wellness Committee and the Student Support Advisory Board, and spearheading our student lounge remodeling and My Story program. She enriched our school, her peers and my life. She’s an incredibly compassionate, empathetic person, which is extremely important in medicine, and I am proud to call her my colleague.

“I’m excited to watch Leah as she continues to knock down barriers and break glass ceilings. She will be a leader in her field. She left a permanent legacy at our school.”

A future without heroic effort

Dr. Molella points out that the medical school will have succeeded when students such as Dr. Thompson don’t have to be more courageous or heroic than any other medical student to succeed in medical education.

“Leah overcame incredible adversity to accomplish what she did. It really shouldn’t take that,” says Dr. Molella. “We have to make it easier to achieve this success without double or triple the effort anyone else has to put forth. That will happen when we continuously value diversity and make accommodations. What we gain in the end is so precious and valuable. Not a single person in Leah’s class will look at a person with a disability the way they would have without her in their class. Many vulnerable patient populations will be grateful to have physicians who better understand them and the challenges they face.

“Leah’s story is a success because of her. She had the stamina, willingness and desire to make it work despite the hurdles. Her success shows us it can be done.”

Dr. Thompson’s new chapter

mayo clinic school of medicine

Leah Grengs Thompson, M.D., with her husband, Daniel, at her graduation from Mayo Clinic School of Medicine

Today Leah (Grengs) Thompson, M.D., is a resident in psychiatry at the University of North Dakota in Fargo. She’s also recently married and gotten a rescue dog, Murphy.

A highlight of her medical school experience was serving on the Student Wellness Committee.

“I considered myself a mentor to students in the classes below me,” she says. “I tried to help those who asked for help. I learned so much from my classmates and physicians I worked with.”

mayo clinic school of medicine

Leah Grengs Thompson, M.D., on her wedding day

Dr. Thompson helped to start the monthly My Story program in which students and staff members share struggles they’ve faced — losing a loved one at a critical time, struggling with addiction or suicidal thoughts, having a physical disability, failing an exam. According to Amit Sood, M.D. (ADGM 05, CLRSH ’06), chair of the Mayo Mind Body Initiative and a consultant in the Division of General Internal Medicine at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, My Story highlights stories in which people have found a resilient pathway through life’s narrow lanes.

“Students love the My Story program,” says Dr. Sood. “Leah took on this project, which we’re expanding to all three Mayo campuses for all 4,000 learners.”

Dr. Thompson says she was surprised to learn that physicians who seemed to “have it all together” have gone through challenges similar to everyone else’s. “I had no idea of the things others had been through. Just because you’re a department head or well published doesn’t mean you’re immune to feeling completely alone. It helps to know others have had similar obstacles.

“I loved being a student at Mayo and gave everything I could to help others.”

After helping fellow students, Dr. Thompson found herself in need of help at the end of 2016. A brain scan showed some abnormal growth in the area of her childhood tumor. She had gamma knife surgery in January during the time she was interviewing for residency. She says Dr. Wolanskyj-Spinner acted as a surrogate parent to her during that time, helping her figure out her treatment options and how to navigate her residency interviews.

“After helping so many other students, it was crazy that I ended up needing help myself,” she says. “In the past, I’d have been shy about opening up. But I’d learned how to do that and called Dr. Wolanskyj-Spinner right away and asked for her help. She was wonderful.”

A recent scan showed the tumor is stable although lifelong monitoring is required.

Loneliness in people with intellectual and developmental disorders across the lifespan: A systematic review of prevalence and interventions – Alexandra – 2018 – JARID

The aim of the study was to conduct the first systematic review investigating the prevalence of loneliness in people with intellectual developmental disabilities (IDD) and the interventions targeting loneliness.

Source: Loneliness in people with intellectual and developmental disorders across the lifespan: A systematic review of prevalence and interventions – Alexandra – 2018 – Journal of Applied Research in Intellectual Disabilities – Wiley Online Library



The aim of the study was to conduct the first systematic review investigating the prevalence of loneliness in people with intellectual developmental disabilities (IDD) and the interventions targeting loneliness.


A search across five databases was conducted (May 2016–June 2016). One reviewer (A. P.) selected the articles for inclusion and assessed their risk of bias using a standardized tool. The second reviewer (A. H.) examined the list of included/excluded articles and the ratings of the studies.


Five prevalence studies met the inclusion criteria and provided an average loneliness prevalence of 44.74%. Only one intervention study was included, and it demonstrated that there was not any significant group difference for loneliness outcomes (= .21). The majority of the studies had a weak quality rating.


The systematic review evidenced that loneliness is a common experience in people with IDD and there is a need to extend current research.


Embedding routine health checks for adults with intellectual disabilities in primary care: practice nurse perceptions – Macdonald – 2018 – JIDR

Qualitative study in General Practices located in NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde, Scotland, UK.MethodEleven practice nurses from 11 intervention practices participated in a semi-structured interview. Analysis was guided by a framework approach.

Source: Embedding routine health checks for adults with intellectual disabilities in primary care: practice nurse perceptions – Macdonald – 2018 – Journal of Intellectual Disability Research – Wiley Online Library



Adults with intellectual disabilities (IDs) have consistently poorer health outcomes than the general population. There is evidence that routine health checks in primary care may improve outcomes. We conducted a randomised controlled trial of practice nurse led health checks. Here, we report findings from the nested qualitative study.


To explore practice nurse perceptions and experience of delivering an anticipatory health check for adults with IDs.

Design and Setting

Qualitative study in General Practices located in NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde, Scotland, UK.


Eleven practice nurses from 11 intervention practices participated in a semi-structured interview. Analysis was guided by a framework approach.


Practice nurses reported initially feeling ‘swamped’ and ‘baffled’ by the prospect of the intervention, but early misgivings were not realised. Health checks were incorporated into daily routines with relative ease, but this was largely contingent on existing patient engagement. The intervention was thought most successful with patients already well known to the practice. Chronic disease management models are commonly used by practice nurses and participants tailored health checks to existing practice. It emerged that few of the nurses utilised the breadth of the check instead modifying the check to respond to individual patients’ needs. As such, already recognised ‘problems’ or issues dominated the health check process. Engaging with the health checks in this way appeared to increase the acceptability and feasibility of the check for nurses. There was universal support for the health check ethos, although some questioned whether all adults with IDs would access the health checks, and as a consequence, the long-term benefits of checks.


While the trial found the intervention to be dominant over standard health care, the adjustments nurses made may not have maximised potential benefits to patients. Increasing training could further improve the benefits that health checks provide for people with IDs.

Health care expenditures of overweight and obese U.S. adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities

Henan Lia,a, Glenn Fujiura,b, Sandra Magaña,c, Susan Parish,d

a Lurie Institute for Disability Policy, The Heller School for Social Policy and Management, Brandeis University, USA

b Department of Disability and Human Development, The University of Illinois at Chicago, USA

c Steve Hicks School of Social Work, University of Texas at Austin, USA

d Bouvé College of Health Sciences, Northeastern University, USA


Background: U.S. adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD) have poorer health status and greater risks for being overweight and obese, which are major drivers of health care expenditures in the general population. Health care expenditures and IDD have not been studied using nationally representative samples, and the impact of overweight and obesity have not been examined. Aim: Using nationally representative data, we aimed to compare the health care expenditures of not-overweight, overweight and obese U.S. adults with IDD, and calculate model-adjusted expenditures. Methods and procedures: Pooled data from the 2002–2011 Medical Expenditure Panel Survey linked to National Health Interview Survey (n=1224) were analyzed. Two-part model regressions were conducted, with covariates being year of survey, age, sex, race/ethnicity, household income status, geographical region, urban/rural, marital status, insurance coverage, perceived health status, and perceived mental health status. Outcomes and results: Overall, obese adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities had higher expenditures than their non-obese peers. Being obese was associated with an estimated additional $2516 in mean expenditures and $1200 in median expenditures compared with the reference group, who were neither overweight nor obese. Conclusions and implications: Obesity is an important predictor of higher health care costs among community-living adults with IDD Finding effective strategies and interventions to address obesity in this population has great financial and policy significance.

At the intersection of chronic disease, disability and health services research: A scoping literature review



There is a concerted effort underway to evaluate and reform our nation’s approach to the health of people with ongoing or elevated needs for care, particularly persons with chronic conditions and/or disabilities.


This literature review characterizes the current state of knowledge on the measurement of chronic disease and disability in population-based health services research on working age adults (age 18-64).


Scoping review methods were used to scan the health services research literature published since the year 2000, including medline, psycINFO and manual searches. The guiding question was: “How are chronic conditions and disability defined and measured in studies of healthcare access, quality, utilization or cost?”


Fifty-five studies met the stated inclusion criteria. Chronic conditions were variously defined by brief lists of conditions, broader criteria-based lists, two or more (multiple) chronic conditions, or other constructs. Disability was generally assessed through ADLs/IADLs, functional limitations, activity limitations or program eligibility. A smaller subset of studies used information from both domains to identify a study population or to stratify it by subgroup.


There remains a divide in this literature between studies that rely upon diagnostically-oriented measures and studies that instead rely on functional, activity or other constructs of disability to identify the population of interest. This leads to wide ranging differences in population prevalence and outcome estimates. However, there is also a growing effort to develop methods that account for the overlap between chronic disease and disability and to “segment” this heterogeneous population into policy or practice relevant subgroups.

  • a The Heller School for Social Policy and Management, Brandeis University, Waltham, MA, United States
  • b National Institutes of Health, Clinical Research Center, Rehabilitation Medicine Department, Bethesda, MD, United States
  • c John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, Baltimore, MD, United States
  • d Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center, Cincinnati, OH, United States
  • e Rollins School of Public Health, Emory University, GA, United States
  • f University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, Pittsburgh, PA, United States
  • g University of Kansas, Lawrence, KS, United States

The Guide to Community Preventive Services and Disability Inclusion

Source: The Guide to Community Preventive Services and Disability Inclusion – ScienceDirect

Why is this important?

  • One in five adults in the United States have some type of disability (CDC, 2017).
  • Adults with disabilities are more likely to be obese, smoke, have high blood pressure, and be physically inactive than adults without disabilities(CDC, 2017).
  • Increased risk for medical conditions, such as heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and some cancers are also more common among adults with disabilities (CDC, 2017).


Approximately 40 million people in the U.S. identify as having a serious disability, and people with disabilities experience many health disparitiescompared with the general population. The Guide to Community Preventive Services (The Community Guide) identifies evidence-based programs and policies recommended by the Community Preventive Services Task Force (Task Force) to promote health and prevent disease. The Community Guide was assessed to answer the questions: are Community Guide public health intervention recommendations applicable to people with disabilities, and are adaptations required?


An assessment of 91 recommendations from The Community Guide was conducted for 15 health topics by qualitative analysis involving three data approaches: an integrative literature review (years 1980–2011), key informant interviews, and focus group discussion during 2011.


Twenty-six recommended interventions would not need any adaptation to be of benefit to people with disabilities. Forty-one recommended interventions could benefit from adaptations in communication and technology; 33 could benefit from training adaptations; 31 from physical accessibility adaptations; and 16 could benefit from other adaptations, such as written policy changes and creation of peer support networks. Thirty-eight recommended interventions could benefit from one or more adaptations to enhance disability inclusion.


As public health and healthcare systems implement Task Force recommendations, identifying and addressing barriers to full participation for people with disabilities is important so that interventions reach the entire population. With appropriate adaptations, implementation of recommendations from The Community Guide could be successfully expanded to address the needs of people with disabilities.

I Use a Wheelchair. And Yes, I’m Your Doctor. – The New York Times

When I was in the third year of my medical residency, I was asked to evaluate a new state-of-the-art, fully accessible exam table that would be used in doctors’ offices to better provide care for patients with mobility-related disabilities. The table could go as low as 18 inches off the ground to enable easier transfers for wheelchair users and had extra rails and grips to provide support for patients with impaired balance. I was to assess this equipment as a “user expert.” Although the table was designed

Source: I Use a Wheelchair. And Yes, I’m Your Doctor. – The New York Times

When I was in the third year of my medical residency, I was asked to evaluate a new state-of-the-art, fully accessible exam table that would be used in doctors’ offices to better provide care for patients with mobility-related disabilities. The table could go as low as 18 inches off the ground to enable easier transfers for wheelchair users and had extra rails and grips to provide support for patients with impaired balance.

I was to assess this equipment as a “user expert.” Although the table was designed to accommodate patients with disabilities, I rolled up to it to evaluate it from the perspective of a physician. “Do you want my opinion as a patient, or as a doctor?” I asked the surprised representatives from the medical equipment company.

I have been a wheelchair user since early childhood, when I sustained a spinal cord injury in a farming accident. I am now a practicing physician in the field of rehabilitation and sports medicine.

In my busy outpatient clinical practice, I witness the spectrum of patients’ reactions when they find out that their doctor is, herself, disabled. Typically those first few seconds after entering an exam room — before the patient’s guard goes up — are the most informative.

I find that these reactions are somewhat generational. Younger patients, having grown up amid a growing awareness of disability in society, typically do not react at all. They have clearly encountered empowered people with disabilities working in various professional roles. Older patients often seem confused, curious or, in rare circumstances, dismayed.

Several months ago, I wheeled into the room of an elderly woman. She looked at me, placed her hand on mine and, with a kind look asked, “Are you an invalid?” More recently, a jovial older man exclaimed, “You’ve got to be kidding me!” A few times, patients will hesitate to tell me their concerns, indicating “Well, doc, I feel bad complaining about this to you, when clearly your problems are bigger than mine.”

Several years ago, while in my residency, I was in line at our hospital cafeteria. Although my badge reading “Dr. Blauwet” and stethoscope were clearly visible, a man next to me in line said: “You look like you are doing pretty well. When are you going to be discharged?” Clearly, my wheelchair was the only thing he saw. Moreover, he equated my wheelchair with illness, rather than empowerment.

Over the years, I’ve thought a lot about situations like these, and I do not believe they come so much from direct prejudice as from people’s lack of experience with doctors who are also wheelchair users. A recent study revealed that less than 3 percent of medical school trainees are people with disabilities, and of these, only a small proportion are individuals with mobility impairment. How can we expect our patients or colleagues to know about the perspectives and needs of physicians with disabilities when we remain invisible to them? The reason for this underrepresentation is complicated. Most physicians with mobility disabilities will tell you that the problem is not that we lack the ability to do our job competently. As with many other educated, skilled professionals, we know how to choose a path that suits our talents and abilities. Reasonable accommodations, such as the use of standing wheelchairs in the operating room, give us the access we need to do our work. The larger barrier to entry for prospective doctors with disabilities, however, is bias, both overt and hidden.

A colleague who is quadriplegic recounted a medical school admissions officer telling him, “I’m afraid that you will not meet the technical standards for admission.” Although steeped in bias and probably illegal, this response was at least more direct than the more common form of discrimination where otherwise strong applicants with disabilities simply do not receive an interview or a call back. As our peers are accepted into prestigious schools and academic positions, we sit on the sidelines, left to question whether the fault lies with us or the system. Many give up their aspirations of a career in medicine altogether, electing to pursue work more “traditionally suited” for people with disabilities. Others lose sleep, questioning whether it was the right decision to disclose their disability in the application materials.

Anyone can enter, at any time, the minority group of people with disabilities. The most common cause of new, adult-onset disability is — simply put — aging. Physicians are often reluctant to disclose new-onset or progressive disability (like loss of hearing or vision, or reduced mobility) because of the fear of being stigmatized; medicine, after all, is still dominated by the prototype of physical prowess.

Dr. Lisa Iezzoni, a professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, has been an important mentor to me for many years. She recounted her experience as a medical student at Harvard in the early 1980s, a decade before the passage of the Americans With Disabilities Act. In her first year at the medical school, after experiencing some physical and sensory symptoms, she was given a diagnosis of multiple sclerosis. Late in her third year, after a fall, she started using a cane, but her aspirations to pursue an internal medicine residency remained, despite the overt discouragement she received. At a student-faculty dinner, an influential professor told her: “There are too many doctors in the country right now for us to worry about training a handicapped physician. If that means someone gets left by the wayside, that’s too bad.”

The medical school refused to write a letter of recommendation for her residency application, so she could not pursue the training required for clinical practice. She pursued health policy research instead and became the first female professor of medicine at the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and now directs the Mongan Institute Health Policy Center at Massachusetts General Hospital. Despite having had an extraordinarily successful career, she sometimes wonders what could have been if she had been able to practice medicine.

My experience, more than two decades later, was vastly different. As an undergraduate at the University of Arizona, I became interested in applying to medical school. I investigated the application process and took coursework that would set me up for success. I studied, networked, did internships and engaged in various activities that would strengthen my application. Additionally, throughout this time, I nurtured my alter ego as an athlete, pursuing the sport of wheelchair racing, and ultimately represented the United States in three Paralympic Games.

In the fall of 2002, I applied to medical school, received interviews at several prestigious universities and was accepted to the Stanford University School of Medicine. Throughout this process, I never once feared that my disability would get in the way of success. I could focus on my academic performance rather than expending mental energy around concerns of hidden bias.

As a member of the “A.D.A. generation,” I was blissfully ignorant that my visible disability could, in fact, derail my success. I simply assumed that I would be evaluated on merit, like my peers. (I also realized that my athletic success perhaps made me seem more “able.”) I now understand the privilege of that perspective. I cannot completely separate my disability identity from my professional role.

People with disabilities often express fear or dissatisfaction with our health care system because they face poor access and discriminatory attitudes. This must change. Perhaps having more doctors with disabilities is one solution. As with any underrepresented group in medicine, professional diversity should reflect our population’s diversity. That simple change can bring awareness, empathy and a shared experience that ultimately makes all of us better.

Cheri A. Blauwet (@CheriBlauwetMD), an assistant professor at Harvard Medical School, is a seven-time Paralympic medalist and serves on the board of the United States Olympic Committee.

Disability is a weekly series of essays, art and opinion by and about people living with disabilities.

The entire series can be found here. To reach the editors or submit an essay for consideration, write and include “Disability” in the subject field. Follow The New York Times Opinion section on Facebook and Twitter (@NYTOpinion), and sign up for the Opinion Today newsletter.

Disability Healthcare Training – Nisonger Center

Access two courses that are approved for continuing education by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for physicians, nurses, certified health education specialists and other health professionals.

Source: Disability Healthcare Training – Nisonger Center

The Ohio Disability and Health Program has developed online training modules that are designed to increase the capacity of health care providers to provide quality healthcare for persons with disabilities. The two courses are approved for continuing education by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for health professionals in multiple areas. For more information, please visit:

Please contact Ann Robinson (contact information below) for further information.

Abused And Betrayed: People With Intellectual Disabilities And An Epidemic Of Sexual Assault : NPR

Source: Abused And Betrayed: People With Intellectual Disabilities And An Epidemic Of Sexual Assault : NPR

NPR Special Series: Abused and Betrayed: People with Intellectual Disabilities and an Epidemic of Sexual Assault
At a moment of reckoning in the United States about sexual harassment and sexual assault, a yearlong NPR investigation finds that there’s little recognition of a group of Americans that is one of the most at risk: adults with intellectual disabilities. The series starts on Monday, January 8 and runs through January 18th.

Disability Stigma and Your Patients | Rehabilitation Research and Training Center on Aging With Physical Disabilities

Source: Disability Stigma and Your Patients | Rehabilitation Research and Training Center on Aging With Physical Disabilities

Download Document on Aging Stigma

For people with disabilities, stigma can be a major barrier to participation. Stigmatizing attitudes about disabilities can also affect relationships between patients and providers. However, health care providers can be allies with their patients and help reduce the impact of stigma.

What Is Disability Stigma?

The word stigma comes from the Greek word for “mark.” Generally, stigma is a negative set of beliefs about people with specific characteristics. For example, ethnic or sexual minorities, or people with unusual facial appearance may encounter stigma.

People with disabilities have been stigmatized throughout history. In many cultures, disability has been associated with curses, disease, dependence, and helplessness. Disability stigma can play out in a number of ways, including:

  • Social Avoidance – People with disabilities may be left out of social activities, or they may find that friends become more distant after they develop a disability. People may be hesitant to make eye contact or start a conversation with someone who has a visible disability.
  • Stereotyping – People with disabilities may be presumed to be helpless, unable to care for themselves, or unable to make their own decisions. People with one disability, such as a speech impairment, may be presumed to have other disabilities they don’t have, such as an intellectual disability.
  • Discrimination – People with disabilities may be denied jobs, housing, or other opportunities due to false assumptions or stereotypes about disabilities. This still occurs today, despite disability rights laws such as the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
  • Condescension – People with disabilities may be coddled or over-protected due to perceptions of their helplessness.
  • Blaming – People may be blamed for their disability, or accused of using their disability to gain unfair benefits.
  • Internalization – People with disabilities may themselves adopt negative beliefs about their disability and feel ashamed or embarrassed about it.
  • Hate Crimes and Violence – People with disabilities may be targeted in hate crimes. They are more likely to be victims of physical or sexual violence than people without disabilities.

How Can Disability Stigma Affect Your Relationship with Your Patients?

People with disabilities may manage their condition in ways that guard against being stigmatized. In addition, people with disabilities may be especially sensitive to signs of possible stigmatizing from their providers.

Some issues related to stigma that may arise include:

  • Concealment – If possible, some people may choose to conceal their disability in public in order to minimize stigma. As a result, they may be reluctant to use assistive devices, such as mobility devices or hearing aids, or to tell others about their diagnosis. They may also forgo some medical services.
  • Disability Pride – On the other hand, some people express pride and a positive identity around their disability as a way to counteract stigma. These individuals may wish to join groups of people who share their disability, where it is no longer stigmatized. They may also opt against medical treatment intended to “cure” their disability because they have developed a positive identity around the condition.
  • Social Integration – Stigma is social in nature and may interfere with social integration.  In contrast to “concealment,” people may choose to make their disability more evident in order to improve their options for social participation. For example, a person with a mobility impairment may choose to use a wheelchair instead of a walker if the wheelchair would allow him or her to travel to work or family activities without fatigue.
  • Need for Respect – Your patients may be especially sensitive to your attitude about their disability. Building a collaborative partnership with your patient built on trust and respect communicates your support for the patient as a whole person.

Tips for Respectful, Stigma-free Interactions

Establish Respectful Communication

  • Do speak directly to your patient, even if he or she has a companion or interpreter in the room. Make eye contact with the patient, not the companion.
  • Do use ordinary language. It’s OK to say “see you later” to a patient who is blind, or to talk about going for a walk with a patient who is non-ambulatory. Using ordinary expressions signals that you see your patients as full members of their community.
  • Do ask patients with speech impairments how they prefer to communicate. Some patients may write or type to communicate if they have impaired speech, for example, or they may have established yes/no signals.
  • Do use age appropriate language and tone with adult patients, and assume that a patient with a disability will understand basic instructions unless you have a clear indication otherwise.
  • Don’t interrupt or rush a patient who communicates slowly because of a speech impairment.
  • Don’t guess what a patient is saying. If you don’t understand the communication, ask for clarification.

Respect Patient Privacy and Autonomy

  • Do provide written materials in an electronic format when possible, for patients with visual impairments and those who have difficulty with handwriting or manipulating print materials. A patient can independently fill out an electronic form in advance of an appointment. Provide medical record information, treatment plans, and instructions in a digital format when requested.
  • Do ensure that your office building and toilets are accessible to people using mobility aids such as walkers and wheelchairs, so that they can navigate the space independently.
  • Do ensure that your office practice is accessible.  For example, your patients with disabilities should be able to get weighed, use the exam tables, and access radiological exams.
  • Do ask a patient the best way to provide physical assistance if it is needed.
  • Don’t touch, pull or grab a patient’s body without asking for consent. For patients with some physical conditions, inappropriate touch can cause pain or interfere with balance. For others, unwanted touch can cause anxiety. Asking for consent respects the patient’s bodily autonomy.
  • Don’t handle a patient’s mobility device without consent.

Respect Disability Identity and Culture

  • Do respect a patient’s choice to downplay or highlight their disability in particular settings.
  • Do introduce your patients to disability support groups. Organizations like the National Multiple Sclerosis Society(link is external) or the United Spinal Association may have local chapters in your area. Your local independent living center may also have resources.
  • Don’t use negative words to describe disabilities. Words such as “tragedy” or “suffering” can convey a stigmatizing view of disability to your patients.  Patients are not “confined to wheel chairs,” but rather use wheelchairs.
  • Don’t fall into the trap of “golden rule thinking.” This is imagining how you would personally feel with a disability as a way to infer how your patients feel. Disability is a complex experience that differs from person to person and changes over time. Listen to your patients to discover how you can be their best ally.

Additional Resources

Society for Disability Studies: is external)

Disability law and accommodations in health care: is external)

List of national disability advocacy and support organizations: is external)

Alliance for Disability in Health Care Education: is external)


Eddey, G. E. & Robey, K. L. (2005). Considering the culture of disability in cultural competence education. Academic Medicine, 80, 706-712.

Goffman, E. (1963). Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Morris, M. A., Yorkston, K. & Clayman, M. L. (2014). Improving communication in the primary care setting: Perspectives of patients with speech disabilities. Patient, 7, 397-401.

Olkin, R. (1999). What Psychotherapists Should Know About Disability. New York: Guilford Press.


Disability Stigma and Your Patients” was developed by Arielle Silverman, PhD, and published by the University of Washington Aging RRTC. Content is based on research evidence and/or professional consensus.


This information is not meant to replace the advice from a medical professional. You should consult your health care provider regarding specific medical concerns or treatment.

Suggested Attribution:

University of Washington. (2016). Disability Stigma and Your Patients [Factsheet]. Aging Well with a Physical Disability Factsheet Series. Healthy Aging & Physical Disability RRTC,

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