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Disability Visibility Project: Lisa Meeks and Greg Moorehead

On August 14, 2014, Dr. Lisa Meeks and Dr. Gregory Moorehead recorded their conversation at StoryCorps Chicago. Both Lisa and Greg work with students with disabilities in graduate health science programs. They are both partners in a newly formed Coalition for Disability Access in Health Science and Medical Education.

Below are approximate excerpts from their conversation.

Motivations for forming the Coalition for Disability Access for Health Science and Medical Education

Lisa: … one of the things we found when speaking with our peer institutions was that everyone was practicing slightly differently and sometimes completely differently. It was concerning to me, as a provider that a student could come to our institution and have one experience, but could go to another institution, (as oftentimes medical students do… on fourth year rotation or on residency) and have a completely different experience. And so, in order to standardize and develop these promising and best practices, we said we have to come together and formalize the process.

Greg: Right.

Lisa: My personal motivation behind this is that I’ve seen practitioners with disabilities that are successful, and I think sometimes individuals who have struggled in one way or another make the best providers because of those experiences. Those experiences serve to inform them in a way that benefits the patient.

Greg: Absolutely.

Lisa: I was having a conversation the other day with a provider who said someone with a mental health issue can’t be a provider. It really hit me hard. I took exception to it because I know so many providers that struggle with or have struggled with depression or anxiety or bi-polar disorder and when you think about those disease pathologies in the context of medicine other medical issues it makes no sense.. Would you tell a physician who has diabetes that they can not be a physician because they have to monitor their blood sugar? Of course not!

Greg: Right.

Lisa: If they were practicing good health care and taking care of themselves, then there’s no reason why that person can’t practice medicine…Disclosing a mental health issue is difficult, and one of the most frequent questions I get from students that have psychological disabilities is…”Who’s going to see this, If the national boards see this documentation, you know, will that affect me down the road? If I get sued for something, will someone have access to this paper work?” I’m always really forthright and open about the process and the pros and the cons of asking for accommodations and… just really assuring them that, that paperwork and that documentation is kept in strict confidence.

Greg: Absolutely…when I came to the University of Chicago there were so few students who were actually a part of the Medical School that actually had disabilities. And quite frankly, the, the numbers are still really low, but I’ve been actively involved with the medical school, in trying to develop the kind of processes that will help to facilitate greater numbers of students with disabilities in the medical school. And so I thought that this [coalition] would be a wonderful vehicle to develop some of the best practices that have been already shared with my colleagues from across the country, and it’s really been well-received, this whole idea, this group at the University of Chicago, and although, like I said, while our population is still relatively small…I think that we’re going to see more and more students at the University of Chicago, with disabilities in the field of medicine.

And the great thing about it, when we see those students come now, we will have a baseline of knowledge to support those students and to help facilitate their goals within those programs.

Challenges of professional students with disabilities in the health sciences

Lisa: What, what do you think are some of the unique challenges encountered by students with disabilities in medical and health science programs?

Greg: Well the clerkships and clinical settings present unique challenges for students, which maybe considerably different from the accommodation model typically employed in the classroom setting. Students working in these environments must adhere to strict technical standards while demonstrating exceptional ability to work independently and as a team, while effectively communicating with students and other practitioners exhibiting a vast breath of knowledge.

If assistive technology is needed in a clinical setting, how it may impact patient safety, confidentiality, and the interactive process are but a few of the considerations that must be pondered. Finally, students have to carefully consider how their accommodation needs may be disclosed in regards to their work in a clinical and professional setting. Often in the traditional academic environment, students may be quite forthcoming in discussing their accommodations with faculty. But in health sciences and medicine students have to be very careful about how much information should be disclosed. They also have to really think about what’s the most effective strategy for doing so.

A professional approach to discussing accommodations not only insures availability of needed support but also protects the student’s standing amongst their colleagues.

Lisa: Yes, it gets really tricky in these professional schools because students are used to being students… and now they’re expected to be budding practitioners and professionalism is key…So, one of the things that I find really interesting when I meet with students is the insight that they have to their disability and knowing their needs. Do you have that same experience?

Greg: Yes, it’s very important for students coming into a medical program, or into a health science program to really have an awareness of their condition, to also really know themselves.. So, coming into these programs, we want for students to give careful thought about what they’re able to do. We also want them to know their disability very well. They also need to understand how their condition will impact them in an academic setting, as well as a clinical setting. And it’s also really important for students to recall what systems of support worked well for them in the past. And what systems of support didn’t work well for them in the past.

Lisa: Right. Sometimes I find actually that the students are the best source of knowledge when determining accommodations. They know the technology that’s emerging that I would of never considered. So, I always ask the student what they’re using and what’s working, and what’s not.

Goal of the Americans with Disabilities Act

Lisa: And, so, it’s important, I think, for us to realize the, the intellectual potential, and potential for contributions, of all people with disabilities.

Greg: Isn’t that kind of the whole concept of the ADA?

Greg: …we want to make sure that we’re utilizing all the human potential that we have out there…We want to make sure that they’re able to actualize all their possibilities… I think the whole idea behind the ADA is to make sure that we are developing all of the human potential that’s out there.

Lisa: Absolutely…. You know, the world is just…a changing place with regard to medicine. And, like you said, no, no person left behind. There’s some real intellect out there, and someone who has an aptitude for medicine, who, might have a barrier if it weren’t for the Americans with Disabilities Act… and, I just think we’re going in a positive direction.

Greg: You know, the other thing to emphasize is that, you know, all the talk about supporting students. It’s really about supporting faculty and clinicians as well. I think that the work that we do is so important to supporting them and I think that as we’ve worked with them, we’ve seen that there’s really an interest to support and engage these students in the medical field but a lot of times, they just don’t know how to do it, and that’s where our work becomes so important.

Value of having a diverse workforce of healthcare professionals with disabilities

Greg: You want to have good interaction, between patients and between their doctors. And if you’ve got doctors who have disabilities and have gone through some of the same experiences as some of the patients that they’re working with I think that you’re going to have one of the most powerful models that you could have in medicine.

Lisa: If you think about the biggest tool a physician uses it’s the brain.

Greg: It is, Absolutely.

Lisa: And the ability to synthesize information, and listen to their patients and… I’m so excited about the direction that we’re going with this and how we’re developing these new ideas.


Dr. Gregory Moorehead is the Director of Student Disability Services at the University of Chicago. He earned his doctorate in Educational Leadership at Western Michigan University, where is also a member of the Alumni Academy in the School of Communication. He has worked in higher education for more than 20 years, and for most of that time with underrepresented populations, successfully coauthoring several federal and state grants. Prior to arriving at the University of Chicago in 2011, he worked for nine years at Rutgers University where his commitment to underrepresented populations was recognized by the state of New Jersey. He is one of the co-founder of the Coalition for Access in Graduate Health, Science and Medical Education.

Dr. Lisa Meeks is on staff at The University of California, San Francisco. Lisa received her undergraduate degree from The University of Central Florida, and her Master’s and Ph.D. in Psychology and Learning and Development from The University of Alabama (HSV) and Cleveland State University, respectively. Her post-graduate training includes sub-specialty training at Harvard University in testing and measurement.

Lisa currently works with students with disabilities in graduate health science programs (medicine, dentistry, pharmacy, nursing). In this area, she specializes in disability as a form of diversity; culturally competent medical education; and professional communication in students with disabilities. She is particularly skilled in clinical accommodations, in both hospital and clinic settings, and is the co-founder of the Coalition for Access in Graduate Health, Science and Medical Education.

Lisa, has co-authored two books on the subject of ASD in higher education and her forthcoming book, THE GUIDE TO ASSISTING STUDENTS WITH DISABILITIES: Equal Access in Health Science and Professional Education is due out this Spring (Springer Publishing, NY:NY).

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