Can You Be A Doctor With A Disability? (Breaking Stereotypes)

Updated on: December 3, 2023
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Written By Dr Ollie

Every article is fact-checked by a medical professional. However, inaccuracies may still persist.

If you’re a disabled person yourself, with dreams of studying medicine, you may wonder if you can become a doctor in the UK despite having a disability.

In most cases, individuals with disabilities can apply, study, and graduate as doctors, bringing unique experiences and perspectives to the field of medicine. In the UK, the Medical Schools Council recognises and values the contributions of individuals with disabilities and long-term health conditions.

With the appropriate support and reasonable adjustments made by organisations, many disabled individuals can pursue a fulfilling career in medicine.

In this article, I wanted to explore what rules and regulations there are regarding disabled doctors and what steps you might need to take if you want to apply to medical school with a disability.

Key Takeaways

  • Disabilities need not be a barrier to becoming a doctor, as long as appropriate support and adjustments are provided.
  • The Medical Schools Council in the UK values the unique perspectives and experiences of individuals with disabilities in the field of medicine.
  • Challenges may arise for healthcare professionals with disabilities, but with proper support and guidance, they can excel in their careers.

What’s The Definition Of A Disabled Person?

When discussing disabilities, it’s essential to understand the legal definition of a disabled person.

According to the Equality Act 2010, a person is considered disabled if they have a physical or mental impairment that has a ‘substantial’ and ‘long-term’ negative effect on their ability to perform daily activities.

Being classified as disabled under the act means that you have certain rights and protections, including protection from discrimination.

Can You Be A Doctor With A Disability Pixel Infographic

This is particularly important in the context of pursuing a career as a doctor with a disability.

In practical terms, a ‘substantial’ impairment is one that makes it more difficult for you to perform activities compared to non-disabled individuals.

A ‘long-term’ impact refers to an impairment that has lasted or is expected to last for at least 12 months.

If you have a disability but still wish to pursue a medical career, it’s important to consider your potential for overcoming limitations and adapting to new challenges.

Becoming a doctor with a disability is very much possible, and many disabled individuals have successfully pursued such careers, with the appropriate support and adaptations in place.

Who Decides Whether A Disabled Person Can Be A Doctor?

As we’ve seen, having a disability does not automatically disqualify you from becoming a doctor.

Rather, the General Medical Council (GMC) plays a significant role in deciding whether a doctor can be added to the medical register, ultimately determining if an individual is qualified and competent to practice medicine.

The GMC’s primary focus is on an individual’s ability to competently and safely perform the duties of a doctor, regardless of their disability.

Your disability, whether physical or mental, is only considered a barrier to practising medicine if it will impact your ability to provide safe patient care.

At the end of the day, one of the roles of the GMC is to protect patients.

Therefore, it’s crucial to assess how your disability impacts your functioning and adaptability in a professional medical setting.

If with reasonable adjustments there’s no reason a doctor’s ability to practise medicine would be impacted as a result of their disability, then the GMC will likely be more than happy to add you to the register.

An Organisation’s Duty To Make Reasonable Adjustments

As a person with a disability, you have the right to expect reasonable adjustments in the workplace.

The Equality Act 2010 emphasises the legal duty of organisations to make these adjustments for disabled employees and job applicants (i.e. if you’re applying to medical school).

Employers are required to make reasonable adjustments when they are aware, or could reasonably be expected to know, that an individual is disabled.

Additionally, if a disabled staff member or job applicant requests adjustments or encounters difficulties with any part of their job due to their disability, the employer must respond with appropriate accommodations.

When determining what constitutes a reasonable adjustment, various factors are taken into consideration:

  • The extent of your disability
  • The practicability of implementing the change
  • If the requested adjustment would alleviate the disadvantage faced by you and other disabled individuals
  • The size and resources of the organisation
  • The cost of making the change
  • Any previous adjustments that have already been made

Examples of reasonable adjustments might include providing specialised equipment, flexible working hours, or modifying the work environment to better accommodate your needs.

I have a friend who received a serious head injury as a result of a mountain biking accident.

As a result of this traumatic brain injury, she’d get tired a lot quicker than before her injury and needed frequent breaks.

Her hospital trust was able to support her gradual return to work, with reasonable adjustments in her working hours to allow her to continue being a doctor despite these new limitations.

What Support Is Available For People With Disabilities?

Support available will vary depending on where you are and what your requirements are. However, here are some common adjustments that can be made:

Support And Adjustments At Medical School

You can expect medical schools to provide support and adjustments to ensure that all students receive an equal opportunity to succeed. These might include:

  • Extra time during exams
  • Alternative exam formats
  • Assistive technology provision
  • Specialised tutoring or study support

The key is to communicate with your medical school about your specific needs so they can accommodate you effectively.

Support And Adjustments In The NHS

As you move into the NHS workforce, there is a range of support measures in place to ensure you can perform your duties effectively despite a disability. Some of the primary adjustments provided by the NHS include:

  • Reasonable adjustments to work environments
  • Modified work schedules or duties
  • Access to assistive technology or tools
  • Professional development and supervision tailored to personal needs

Furthermore, the NHS has guidelines and policies to promote inclusivity and diversity in the workplace, ensuring that people with disabilities are given equal opportunities to excel in their roles.

To take advantage of these support measures, be proactive in discussing your disability and any required adjustments with your supervisor or HR department.

Factors Influencing A Doctor’s Ability To Practise

Whether or not an individual can practise medicine is almost always considered on a case-by-case basis.

However, here are some of the factors that might go into a decision about an individual’s capacity to work in the NHS.

Stamina And Endurance

Stamina and endurance affect your ability to handle long hours and demanding workloads.

Unfortunately, this equates to a pretty normal shift in the NHS!

Regardless of disability, doctors need to maintain a reasonable level of physical and mental endurance.

You may be surprised how active you are as a junior doctor getting around the hospital and 12-hour shifts really can take a toll on even the most active of people.

Fine Motor Skills

Fine motor skills play a crucial role in a lot of medical procedures. Whether you’re a surgeon performing an operation to simply trying to get blood from a difficult vein on a patient.

Depending on your disability, you might find yourself limited in these movements and control.

In some cases, reasonable adjustments can be provided to help you perform certain tasks- such as using a dictaphone if a tremor would make your handwriting illegible.

However, the reality is being a doctor often involves a lot of practical, hands-on care.

Communication Skills

Effective communication is fundamental for all doctors, regardless of disability status.

As a doctor with a disability, you may face unique challenges in communication, especially if you have impairments related to speech or hearing.

However, there are various strategies and resources available to enhance your communication skills. These may include assistive devices, alternative forms of communication, or additional training.

Why Disabled People Can Make Better Doctors

I think it’s fair to say that the theme of this article, and indeed the Medical Schools Council’s view, is that disability should not be a barrier to becoming a successful doctor.

In fact, disabled doctors can bring unique perspectives to the profession, which ultimately helps to improve patient care.

Disabled doctors often possess qualities such as resilience, adaptability, and empathy at levels above and beyond the average person– all of which are valuable skills in medicine.

You might be a doctor with a physical or mental impairment that has a substantial and long-term negative effect on your ability to carry out daily activities, but this doesn’t mean you are any less competent.

Many disabled doctors are already striving in their careers, overcoming challenges and providing care to patients.

A doctor taking a patient's blood pressure
A doctor taking a patient’s blood pressure

Living with a disability often means that you’ve experienced various healthcare systems first-hand.

This gives you a unique insight into the challenges and barriers that patients may face.

Your understanding of these complexities can help you develop a more patient-centred approach to care, ultimately improving patient outcomes.

Another factor that plays a crucial role in medical practice is empathy. Empathy allows you to understand the thoughts, feelings, and experiences of others.

Disabled doctors often have personal experiences with health issues, which can help them form a deeper connection with their patients.

This enhanced ability to empathise can help you provide care with more compassion while also making your patients feel understood and supported.

A Lack Of Understanding

As a healthcare professional with a disability, unfortunately, you will almost certainly encounter challenges in your work environment.

Recognising these obstacles is essential for navigating your career successfully and advocating for the necessary support and accommodations.

One of the primary challenges you may face is a lack of understanding from colleagues and patients.

Sometimes there’s just insufficient knowledge about certain disabilities even among healthcare professionals.

Moreover, professional training and education may not fully prepare healthcare providers on how to work with colleagues with disabilities, affecting attitudes towards disability in the workplace.

The Lancet highlights that the impact of education on medical students’ attitudes towards disability is mixed at best, and some professional training can actually result in reduced empathy and increased cynicism.

Although there are no easy fixes to this problem, raising awareness and fostering understanding among colleagues can only help improve the situation in the future.

When Might A Disabled Person Not Be Allowed To Practise Medicine?

No health condition or disability automatically prohibits an individual from studying or practising medicine.

Having a health condition or disability alone is not a fitness to practise concern.

However, there are certain circumstances, a few of which I’ve touched on above, in which the ability to practise medicine might be affected.

Meeting professional requirements: To become a doctor, you need to demonstrate specific professional skills, such as effectively communicating with patients and performing practical tasks like taking blood samples. If a disability prevents you from meeting these essential requirements, you might not be allowed to practise medicine.

Reasonable adjustments: As discussed, medical schools and employers are legally obligated to make reasonable adjustments to accommodate disabled students and staff. However, if adjustments cannot be made or if they are insufficient to enable you to effectively perform the tasks required, you might not be allowed to practise medicine.

Fitness-to-practice concerns: If a health condition or disability significantly impacts your ability to provide safe and effective care, it may become a fitness-to-practice concern. In such cases, you may be subject to fitness to practise procedures, which could result in restrictions on your ability to practise medicine.

Disabilities At Medical School

Finally, in order to become a doctor you’re going to have to get through medical school. This last section therefore looks at a couple of questions you may have about attending medical school with a disability.

Should You Declare A Disability To Your Medical School?

If you’re on the fence, I’d always recommend declaring a disability to your medical school.

It allows the school to make reasonable adjustments for you to study effectively and ensures you receive the necessary support.

Medical schools will do their best to help you as much or as little as you want, and will only share your personal health information with those that it’s strictly necessary to.

Is Disability Considered In The Medical School Selection Process?

Disability is not taken into consideration during the medical school selection process.

While a university might be aware of an applicant’s disability, it does not influence the decision-making process regarding admissions offers.

Furthermore, interviewers and individuals reviewing personal statements are kept uninformed about an applicant’s disability unless it is explicitly mentioned by the applicant or is visibly evident.

Can You Take Time Out Of Medical School Due To Health Concerns?

Taking time out of medical school due to health concerns is possible, but the process may vary between institutions.

It’s essential to communicate with your medical school about your circumstances and seek their advice on the available options.

Medical schools are generally supportive of students requiring temporary leave for health reasons, but specific policies and requirements may differ.

Final Thoughts

Disabled doctors can bring a wealth of experience, understanding, and dedication to the medical profession.

By valuing the unique perspectives and qualities that disabled doctors contribute, we can create an inclusive and diverse workforce that benefits everyone, especially patients, who will ultimately receive better care.

While certain disabled doctors will of course face potential limitations, a disability should not be seen as a barrier to pursuing a career in medicine.

About the author
After studying medicine at the University of Leicester, Dr Ollie now works as a junior doctor in London. His interests include medical education and expedition medicine, as well as having a strong belief in the importance of widening access to medicine.