Doctors and researchers with disabilities can help to advance medicine

An interview with a professor who has an eye disease reveals that there are many doctors, researchers and medical faculty members who have disabilities but don’t talk about their disabilities for a number of reasons but who contribute a lot to their areas of influence in medicine.

National Public Radio’s (NPR), Susie Nelson, an intern with NPR’s Science Desk, interviewed Bonnielin Swenor, who is an assistant professor of ophthalmology at the Wilmer Eye Institute at Johns Hopkins University and who has myopic macular degeneration. 

Although Swenor has dedicated her whole life to the study of visual impairment in older people because she herself has low vision, she rarely discussed her disability with others. The fear of being rejected by both her peers and her patients kept her from doing so.

Until a patient of hers asked Swenor why should she share her disabilities with Swenor if Swenor wouldn’t do so herself. This was contrary to Swenor’s belief that all patients prefer their medical practitioners to be healthy and not weak or sick. That’s not true. Why wouldn’t we want someone who has experienced what we are going through? In this writer’s opinion, they would be better equipped to help us.

Swenor said her reluctance to share her visual disability was out of the fear she would be rejected, judged, and not trusted. She has had an individual or two express such crazy attitudes. 

However, Swenor says it is when scientists, doctors and faculties with disabilities share things from their life experiences and from their vantage points that they can contribute to finding innovations, make changes and push science forward in the best direction.

Swenor has slowly come out of her shell so to speak over the years from graduate school to the ophthalmology department where she works which is very supportive of her and is devoted to helping people like her. But at first she was afraid no one would work with her or that she may not be able to do her job.  

Today, there is an informal group of researchers who have a number of different disabilities who are rallying the troops and pushing forward and reaching out to each other and making a difference. Statistics show that on every medical institution’s faculty there is someone with a disability.

Swenor who now talks about her disability has a lot to say and has published articles in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) as well as the New England Journal of Medicine sharing her experiences.

She has received numerous calls from fellow healthcare practitioners, researchers and faculty members with disabilities, thanking her for speaking out.

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