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Profile: Ruth Douglas
I have a genetic condition called Nail Patella Syndrome, which means amongst other things that I have limited arm movements and strength, particularly with my dominant arm. I have had an ambition to study medicine for years, probably fuelled by my being on the receiving end of the NHS on a regular basis! I believe that my experiences and insights as a patient would make me a better doctor than if I had been able bodied. I knew I could meet the people specifications and academic criteria to make a strong application, but realised that not having normal arm function could possibly pose problems in applying to study medicine.
Once qualified it seems to be relatively easy to work as a doctor with a disability, because local provisions can be put in place to accommodate it, and also you can choose a speciality that you can fulfil despite your disability. When you are training, however, during the house officer years you have to be able to do everything and fulfil a complete range of basic techniques. Putting special provisions in for you as you rotate through different jobs is perceived as difficult. It was particularly unclear as to whether I could do chest compressions needed to resuscitate a patient and this was to prove the sticking point for me at times. It is still a little unsure, but I hope to be able to do it using one hand and one elbow rather than the conventional method. I plan to get some practice in before starting my course in September 2003 as it is definitely better if you are disclosing a potential problem to the medical school that you give them a possible solution as well.
I had a minimal amount of help via school and careers advisers and later on in the process some helpful pointers from Skill: National Bureau for Students with Disabilities who my mum discovered about while on an open day about children and disability. At the start of year 12 I started to research the process of applying to medical school using books and the internet. I discovered that the General Medical Council recommends people with disabilities approach universities ahead of applying to them to discuss their individual situation to seek guidance as to whether they feel you would be fit to practise. I decided to disclose my medical background as recommended as I didn't want to get a place at medical school and then be turned down on medical grounds. It was scary putting my neck on the block, as I knew I risked getting negative responses but I decided for me it was the best way forward.
At Christmas in year 12 I e-mailed the disability officers at all the universities I was interested in applying to, asking them to forward my queries to the relevant person in the medical school. (I found the disability co-ordinator details by trawling the internet, not being aware that those details are easily accessed via the Skill website). I gave a full explanation of my condition, how it affected me and what extra provision I anticipated would be required. Some responded immediately and others I had to chase a few times. Most said I would need to be assessed and some offered to do so. One university wrote a blunt letter suggesting I would not be fit to become a doctor and suggesting that I choose another career. Another university replied more sensitively, but expressing major doubts as to my ability to fulfil a house officer role. I was upset that I was not even offered the opportunity to be assessed, and felt their attitude was poor, but decided it was probably for the best. You are bound to be better supported by a university who is positive about you applying, not a university which doesn't want you there. Also, don't believe all you read in the papers. A university that was receiving terrible press coverage at the time about its attitude to disability I found to be one of the most helpful and obliging.
I made an informal contact with my local medical school and got a fairly negative verbal response in terms of the likelihood of my application being successful. Unknown to me my GP stepped in. After she wrote a strong letter to the university dean and I found the right person to speak to in admissions, they were very helpful and arranged a medical for me and gave me a copy of her recommendations to use with all my other applications. The occupational health doctor was very clued up on disability rights issues and said that she felt adjustments could be made to take me onto the course. From this point on I felt I stood a good chance and visited 6 universities who were all helpful, and offered to meet with me to discuss my application. They all had different processes in terms of this assessment. One university required a medical with a specialist in rehabilitation medicine, which my GP organised. Her report was again most useful to give to the universities requiring more information. Some medical schools really put themselves out for me, arranging to meet me and show me around the university. Some seemed more clued up on the issues of admissions for disabled students than others.
I ended up with six universities who were happy to accept an application from me via UCAS and chose the four I was most happy with both in terms of the course, location and how well I felt they would support me in terms of my disability. I used several websites (such as www.medschoolguide.co.uk) a lot to glean general information about applying to medical schools and spoke to other disabled people who were already at medical school.
Now I have offers to do the course, I also need to go through all the other processes that every student goes through. I have a lot to do in terms of applying for Disabled Students' Allowances, finding suitable accommodation and ensuring arrangements are in place for my care needs for when I leave home. It will involve more meetings with disability support staff and medical school personnel and assessments to ensure things are in place for when I start.
You need to be prepared to put in a lot of hours and be ready for some setbacks in your application if you choose to apply for a demanding course like medicine. The GMC are not answerable in law around disability rights issues at present so there are outrageous examples of people being refused the right to study and practise medicine in the UK at present. It is hoped that the medical fraternity will move on in their attitudes as in places like the USA very soon. I am thrilled to have offers conditional on my academic results and relish the prospect of fulfilling my ambition.
Update! Skill was pleased to hear on 14 August 2003 that Ruth achieved 5 A grade A levels. She will be starting her medicine degree at the University of Leeds in September. Congratulations Ruth!
Update! Unfortunately, due to substantial health problems, Ruth had to pull out of her course at Leeds Medical School. Skill would like to wish Ruth all the best and hope that she is able to pursue her ambitions in one way or another in the very near future.
Skill is very sorry to hear that Ruth Douglas died on 7 May 2007. Her success in getting to study medicine is proof that disabled students can achieve their career ambitions and she will be an inspiration for future generations.
[Updated 23rd May 2007]
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