Health Care Needs More Providers With Disabilities
Estimated Reading Time: 3 minutes
I couldn't wait to become a physical therapist.
As soon as I passed my board exams, I began applying for jobs. Soon after, I accepted a travel position, in part because I could start working right away.
The only thing standing between me and my career was an annual physical exam, conducted by a general practitioner, and a little paperwork.
I'm young, healthy, and physically active, so this exam didn't worry me at all.
I met with a new physician, and the assessment went well. But as I was leaving my appointment I spotted a note in the restrictions section: "Cannot lift more than 50 lbs."
I was furious. "Why did you write this on my form?" I asked the physician.
She looked puzzled. "I just don't think it's safe for you lift more than 50 pounds with your condition," she said.
The "condition" she was referring to is my missing right hand.
I was born this way. I have a forearm, a wrist bone, and little nubbins on the end of my limb that don't do anything.
Without having me perform a test that would prove her theory, the physician made an assumption about my abilities. She had never seen me transfer a patient, lift weights, play sports, or be physically active in any way. Yet she felt confident enough to pin limitations on me.
I don't think she intended to be discriminatory. She just couldn't see beyond my physical impairment.
Lots of people struggle do to that, actually, and 1 reason is that people with disabilities are often lost in the shadows. We don't look quite like everyone else, and so we're overlooked.
It's getting better. There are emojis that depict various impairments and assistive devices. There are Barbie dolls with disabilities. And one of the most popular ads during last year's Super Bowl highlighted adaptive gaming devices.
This is progress. But this progress hasn't reached the health care system.
Think about it: How often do you see a health care provider who is differently abled? Rarely, if ever, right?
Nearly 20% of the population has a physical disability. That's 1 out of 5 people. If that's reflected in health care professions, we certainly hide it well. No wonder my physician didn't think I can lift 50 pounds safely. She likely doesn't have someone in her daily work life who can prove otherwise.
But it's not our able-bodied health care providers who most need to see what caregivers with disabilities can do. It's our patients and clients.
Our profession routinely encounters disabilities—some temporary and some permanent. Imagine how much it would mean to differently abled consumers to be cared for by someone who faces some of the same challenges. Someone who they're confident understands them. Someone who is a living reminder of all that can be done with a physical disability, despite certain limitations.
I'm not saying it's easy. As a physical therapist providing manual treatment, my body is part of my toolbox. I have had to adapt. I am conscious of my limitations. But I'm just as aware of my potential.
The bottom line is that it's possible to be a successful physical therapist (PT) or physical therapist assistant (PTA) with a physical disability. I'm living proof of that.
I hope I start seeing more health care providers who look like me. I hope PTs and PTAs with less obvious disabilities grow confident enough to be open about them.
It can help us connect with our patients and inspire other differently abled people to enter this great profession.
Our media and culture are making progress in reflecting a more-inclusive world. It's time for health care to catch up.
Samuel Kelokates, PT, DPT, is a practicing clinician in Philadelphia, PA. You can connect with Samuel on Twitter at @5PhantomFingers.