Emily Smith Beitiks interviewed longtime family friend Stanley K. Yarnell at StoryCorps San Francisco on October 23, 2014.
Below are approximate excerpts from their conversation.
On Stanley’s progressive visual impairment
Stanley: I went to Ohio State for everything. I went to undergrad…for medical school and did my internship residency there…I decided to specialize in physical medicine and rehabilitation. It was January 1969 and I had an attack of optic neuritis… I kept having recurring bouts of optic neuritis about every other year and still it didn’t really affect me until 1978 when I discovered that I was legally blind and I had to stop driving and that was… an emotional time for me, to lose that bit of independence. I was resentful that I couldn’t drive and so on but in no other way did it really affect my, affect me professionally in terms of my well professionally or my personal life or my relationships.
Then in 1987 it was nine years after that I, I had progressively lost more and more vision to the point where I had one more attack of optic neuritis that really truly profound had a significant effect on my mobility and I couldn’t see and I remember walking out, one, one day, I could see colors clearly out of my right eye, and I didn’t routinely use my stick just in a crowded situation. I had tunnel vision and the day the very next day I walked out of the house I realized I couldn’t see cracks in the sidewalk or I couldn’t see the edge of the curb and everything was just totally different and I marched back in the house and got my cane and never stopped using it and I continued to lose vision because I had so little that every time I would have an attack of optic neuritis I’d lose more and I finally lost all of my vision back in 1998 when I was 50.
On facing discrimination in the workplace as a doctor with a disability
And in 1984 a small pediatric rehabilitation hospital it was a small pediatric spinal cord injury unit that here it’s not here anymore but they decided they were gonna open up this unit and one of the orthopedic surgeons that I knew asked me if I would be interested ‘coz that was one of my areas of interest and expertise, spinal cord injury rehabilitation and I said sure. So when I interviewed for it I told them, you know, I have a visual impairment, I’m actually legally blind even though I look fairly normal, or I did back then. My eyes didn’t look funny or anything and so they knew that and I was in that capacity, it was it was just a part-time thing…I had my full time private practice at St. Mary’s and with the Bay Area Rehabilitation Medical Group that I was a part of…I think it was within a month of when I started using my stick all the time I really was struggling. You know, to maintain my emotional footing and to figure out what I could do and couldn’t do and right during that time, the hospital administrator called me in along with the chief orthopedist and they said, “Well gee we feel really bad. This is difficult for us, but we think you’re a medical legal liability and we don’t want you to be the medical director anymore” and I was dumbfounded, I mean I was shocked.
I was good enough at what I did that I had figured that anybody would want to accommodate me in some way and that was in 1987 and but no matter what I said, they seemed to have their minds made up about that and again at first I was shocked and, and humiliated at the idea and I just remember going home and, oh I was just numb for the day and going home on Saturday morning, waking up, and I remember I cried a little because I thought, this is the beginning of the end.
On contacting the Disability Rights and Education Defense Fund for assistance
Stanley: And so I called up…Mary Lou Breslin, who was the executive director of Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund, and this was before the Americans with Disabilities Act and because this particular institution was a charitable organization, they didn’t take any federal funds so the precursor to the ADA, the 504 regs of the 1973 Rehabilitation Act, didn’t apply which is to say, since they didn’t get federal funds, they didn’t have to comply with not discriminating against someone with a disability…even though DREDF usually works through class action suits she rallied the troops, the attorneys over their, Arlene Mayerson and the contracting attorneys, they had Sid Wolinsky and Dianne Lipton, who was one of the staff attorneys. Really worked through it with me, and Mary Lou basically held my hand at every step of this cuz I was, I didn’t want to talk about it… they ended up suing in, my behalf, and, there was a, they came to, found a remedy that was, acceptable to me… I can say after that I firmly identified with the disability community.
On being a doctor and developing a disability identity
Emily: Was it hard… for you ever to embrace the sort of philosophy that’s part of the disability rights movement as a medical professional because so much of the disability rights movement has also been about pushing back against medical establishment and, the medical definition of disability is somebody who is always impaired, rather than talking about things like barriers and access, like you mentioned?
Stanley: No I, I, I, for me because I had the disability no it wasn’t difficult at all. I mean I, I embraced that. I mean I did,I was, I found myself in that unique position of being in the medical community’s camp and then when I did identify myself as a disabled person I realized I was in kind of a unique position to bridge the gap between the two. I think just at a personal level I wanted to use my knowledge not as a physician but also as a disabled person to work more collaboratively with the patients. I think that was one of the things that my patients actually told me I was really good at was working collaboratively and not saying, “This is what you need to do.”
On attending the a board meeting at the World Institute on Disability for the first time with Ed Roberts, Judy Heumann and Neil Jacobson
Stanley: I was sitting there and to my left was Ed…the visionary… who kind of under-ventilated himself…he was to the left and to my right was Judy Heumann, who was a polio survivor who had limited strength and she had a really weak cough and a wheelchair user, and then right across from me was Neil Jacobson who used to be one of the VPs at Wells Fargo in charge of technology and access…he and Judy had known each other since they were five in kindergarten, in the Orthopedically Handicapped School in New York. At any rate, he had athetoid CP and when he, when Neil got excited, he tended to press his arms down or forearms down against the armrests of his wheelchair… so it’s my first meeting and all of a sudden, I realize that Ed has fallen asleep and because he tended to under-ventilate himself and so he was making this, I’m hearing out of my left ear this kind of Darth Vader [SOUND], with his pipe stem blowing air into his mouth and over here suddenly, Judy, who was sipping on a cup of coffee, got coffee down a wrong pipe and she started going and across the way, Neil was, you know, pontificating and holding forth on something and actually levitating up out of his wheelchair and I thought, “These are my people.”
Emily: I have you heard you tell that story before, Stan. Paul Longmore came up to me, zipped up to me and he said, “Leave it to Stan, the physician to want to diagnose all of his stories!”
Advice to the medical profession on people with disabilities
Stanley: I would like to say that I think that there me, there need to be more people with visible disabilities in the health care professions, whether they’re doctors or nurses, therapists, lab techs, whatever…here are three fundamental things I think, reasons why disabled people are valuable. It isn’t that it’s the right thing to do or, or it’s the law or something like that, that they should be hired. First of all, I think that people with disabilities…can serve as role models for patients and families… when other doctors work with a doctor with a disability…it helps them achieve a level of comfort that they might not otherwise have…I think for a lot of doctors who’ve never worked with someone with a disability they tend to look at it as the cup is half empty. They look at the disability and they think, “Oh God, what will we have to do to accommodate this person?” I think that having a physician with a disability helps the institution because physicians with a disability, I think, look at policies and procedures of the institution through the lens of disability. They tend to do that intuitively in the same way that women look at the institutional policies and procedures having to do with employment or accommodation, whatever it is from a woman’s perspective. I think they do it intuitively and it helps the institution think seriously about having more people with visible disabilities there because of what they bring to the table.
Emily: That’s wonderful. Disability is a creative and generative force, as we like to say.
Stanley: Yeah it’s not just the right thing to do, it helps.
Emily Smith Beitiks received a PhD in American Studies at the University of Minnesota in April 2012. She attended the University of California, Davis and received a B.A. in American Studies. Emily’s dissertation, “Building the Normal Body: Disability and the Techno-Makeover Industry,” looks to integrate Disability Studies and Science and Technology Studies into American Studies. In particular, she questions U.S. hegemonic celebrations of the disabled body being “fixed” by technological interventions in science policy and popular culture, while looking at how people with disabilities understand the body/machine interface in ways that resist a simplified cyborg representation through the disability rights movement and emerging assistive technology-focused communities. She has taught at UMN, UCSC, UCD, and in Ghana with course topics covering social justice, cultural understandings of “the body,” and the role of technology in American culture. She now lives in San Francisco and is Assistant Director of Paul K. Longmore Institute on Disability
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Under the leadership of Professor Catherine Kudlick, the Institute’s projects and events challenge prevailing notions that disability can only be a hopeless tragedy by showcasing disabled people’s strength, ingenuity, and originality. Drawing upon the vibrant Bay Area disability community, we promote new forms of teaching, scholarship, artistic creation, strategizing, and freewheeling conversation for disabled and nondisabled people alike.
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Stanley K. Yarnell, MD has been involved with the disability community, both professionally and personally, for the past 35 years.
Dr. Yarnell is a native of Ohio. He attended Ohio State University where he earned a Bachelor of Science degree in microbiology, a Doctor of Medicine degree and a Master of Science degree in physical medicine. After completing his residency training in physical medicine at University Hospitals in Columbus, Ohio, he joined the medical staff of the rehabilitation department at the Santa Clara valley Medical Center in San Jose, Calif. While there, he helped to develop and manage the Northern California Model Spinal Cord Injury Care system. He continued to be actively involved with the early care and management of spinal cord injured patients in his private practice at St. Mary’s Medical Center in San Francisco until his retirement in 2003.
Another area of interest in which Dr. Yarnell is published is in the area of the late effects of polio. He founded the first post-polio clinic in Northern California in 1981 at St. Mary’s Medical Center and promoted the establishment of post-polio self-help groups throughout Northern California. He has presented papers at post-polio conferences both in the United States and internationally.
Dr. Yarnell has been a Clinical Professor of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation in the School of Medicine at Stanford University since the early eighties, and he has helped train more than 120 physical medicine residents during his career.
Dr. Yarnell’s contact with the disability community has not been limited only to his role as treating physician. He has been legally blind due to recurrent optic neuritis since 1978, and his own visual disability has drawn him closer to the disability community. He has served on the board of the San Francisco Independent Living Resource Center for six years, before coming to the Board of the World Institute on Disability. Furthermore, he has long been a supporter of the Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund (DREDF).
In 1989 he was named “Physician of the Year” by the Governor’s Committee for Employment of Disabled Persons. He was named the Health Care Professional of the Year by the President’s Committee for Employment of People with Disabilities in 1990. Dr. Yarnell served on the White House Health Care Providers Advisory Group to the Clinton Health Care Reform Task Force in 1993. Because he is a physician interested in health care for people with disabilities, Dr. Yarnell has been the subject of numerous interviews in publications including the San Francisco Examiner , the Western Journal of Medicine, New Mobility and the American Medical Association News.
Dr. Yarnell was given the Distinguished Public Service Award by the American Academy of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation last year at the annual meeting. Dr. Yarnell continues to be active at St. Mary’s Medical Center.