November 14, 2012 | Posted By Mae Huo

At the end of the article "Disability and narrative: new directions for medicine and the medical humanities" Rebecca Garden states, "However, rather than 'coping with' or 'overcoming' their impairments, many disabled people see their impairments as integral to their lives."  This may have been the most important, and overlooked, message regarding new directions in medicine for working with people with disabilities.  I would like to share a personal story that illustrates this point.

I've been short all my life, but always just too tall to be considered disabled.  When I lived in China, every adult was always trying to get me to grow, like I had a choice in the matter.  They'd either bring up the fact that I can't get a job since there's a height requirement for pretty much every occupation (I wanted to be a teacher and the height requirement for that was the ability to reach the top of the chalkboard) or they'd have these false hopes and reassured me over and over again that I simply have one last growth spurt to hit (at that time, I was visiting family and already 18 years old).  I was fine with my height and the incessant chatter was extremely discouraging and annoying.  When I came to America and learned that most civilian jobs had no height requirement, I was so happy to be leaving the Chinese thinking regarding height impairment.  Here, in the land of accessibility ramps, being short would not affect my life style and I can go into any career that I'd like.  I will no longer hear people sigh at me or look down upon me, no pun intended. 

Another idea brought up by the Rebecca Garden in this article was that disability is not only a physical or mental manifestation in a person, but it is shaped and defined by society.  In the recent years, I realized that Americans make just as many remarks about my height to me as the Chinese.  They were just more subtle and perhaps because of that, more offensive.  Sometimes, people do things for me, like move a heavy object, without asking if I can manage it first.  I'm not talking about grocery store employees who ask everyone if they need help out.  I'm talking about when I’m singled out by someone because he assumed I can’t physically move that object and never gave me a chance to make my own decision about the matter.  At first only jokes, but the "can you reach the top shelf" comments are getting old.  No, I can't.  I bought a stool to use at home.  It's not that weird.

I do not consider myself disabled yet I am still occasionally made to feel bad about not being over 5 feet tall.  I can’t even begin to imagine how someone is made to feel who has an obvious and visible physical abnormality.  There's a gray zone between helping individuals with disabilities, especially with a task that they can complete on their own, and making people feel pitied. The truth is, without knowing someone well, we won’t know with side of the gray zone the person tends to lean towards.  As medical professionals, many of our patients will have disabilities.  When viewing disabilities, society may judge the degree of difficulty disabilities or diseases have placed on someone's life but medical professionals should only weigh in this matter in collaboration with the patient and from the patient’s perspective. Perhaps it may only seem like semantics, but our patients are people with disabilities, and we should not pigeonhole them as their disabilities. Our duty is to take care of patients with the resources available and to advocate for more when what is available is not enough.  That is how we should see "disabilities." 

Mae Huo is one of Albany Medical College's medical students in the class of 2016.

The Alden March Bioethics Institute offers a Master of Science in Bioethics, a Doctorate of Professional Studies in Bioethics, and Graduate Certificates in Clinical Ethics and Clinical Ethics Consultation. For more information on AMBI's online graduate programs, please visit our website.

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