Fighting Their Way Into Medical School

Summarized by Jennifer Reed, staff writer

Zachary Featherstone had been accepted admission to Pacific Northwest University of Health Sciences’ College of Osteopathic Medicine in the spring of 2013 only to later be denied because he is deaf. Following a judge’s orders, he will begin classes in the fall of 2014.

At his initial acceptance in 2013, Featherstone attempted to work with the school to arrange his accommodations. The State of Washington Division of Vocational Rehabilitation was even ready to financially cover his needs if the school was unable to.

After delaying his admission for a year, the school stated in a letter written by the dean that Featherstone could not enroll because his “education and that of [his] classmates will be compromised; that we cannot provide an equivalent education, particularly in clinical environments; and that risks to patient safety would be increased.”

Medical schools have been using the same reasoning regarding accommodations for years, but improved technology and more court decisions against such claims have begun to erode the legal leverage of these arguments. Recent cases, one involving a blind student against Palmer College of Chiropractic in Iowa and another involving a deaf student against Creighton University’s medical school are two such cases.

The president of the American Association of Colleges of Osteopathic Medicine states that medical schools have to not only consider how to accommodate students, but must also take into consideration laws on various levels, professional standards, and the duty to patients.

Because colleges may not change the requirements of a degree for a student with disabilities, courts often rule in favor of the universities when essential elements cannot be fulfilled by the student. However, rejecting a student for reasons of safety is less often successful as the school must prove the student would be a threat to patients.

In a 1979 case where the court ruled in favor of Southeastern Community College against a deaf nursing student who read lips and therefore could not communicate when surgical masks were worn, Justice Lewis Powell acknowledged that, with technology, the circumstances could change in the future. With this statement, he also claimed the higher likelihood of future refusals to be “unreasonable and discriminatory.”

L. Scott Lissner, the Americans with Disabilities Act coordinator at Ohio State University and former president of the Association on Higher Education and Disability, said those technological advances have now taken place for many with certain disabilities.

Captioning is now one accommodation that is now “affordable and reasonable.” A study that came out in 2013 in Academic Medicine notes the success of many deaf medical students, but also noted these students were required to arrange their accommodations themselves throughout their medical school education.

Other accommodations available to deaf medical students include amplified stethoscopes, advanced text-to-speech technology, and amplified telephones. One student at the University of California at Davis collected the sounds in the operating room with a tablet. The tablet sent the data to an off-site transcriber which sent the details to an overhead monitor stationed in the back of the operating room.

Accommodations for blind students include “visual describers, raised line drawings, and devices that translate flat images into a series of vibrating pins that can be felt with a student’s finger.”

Clearly, technology has denied medical schools the ability to deny students based on a lack of accommodations. Unfortunately, the mindset of some administrators still lags.

Some carry the fear of patient safety into other fields, as noted when the opposition in the Iowa Supreme Court case wondered aloud if things would come to hiring blind air traffic controllers who required an assistant to provide them with the details on the screen.

Read the full story here.

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