While there is a large number of people who dream of becoming a physician, not all eventually end up pursuing medicine. Reasons for this are diverse and varied—perhaps their interests have shifted, or perhaps these individuals have realised that the path is not right for them, or maybe they are met with certain obstacles, stopping them from pursuing further.

Can individuals with disabilities pursue medicine?

According to a study published in 2016, most medical schools in America do not provide concise information on accepting students with disabilities. Only a third of the schools have expressed that they would accommodate such students. The study was conducted by Philip Zazove M.D., a Professor from the University of Michigan Medical School, along with several other researchers.

However, following the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, students with disabilities have been given the privilege to access every level of education. This in turn has allowed more students with disabilities to pursue medicine.

Similarly, in the UK, the Equality Act 2010 has made it unlawful for education providers to regard students with disabilities less favourably; unless there is a proper justification. Considerations for students with disabilities who wish to pursue medicine include (1) if their disability would limit, reduce or prevent them from studying medicine; (2) if their disability would worsen in the study or practice of medicine; and (3) their disability may make tasks unsafe for them, their colleagues or patients in the event that adjustments cannot be reasonably provided.

Seeing as both the US and the UK have been making progress in accommodating their students with disabilities in the pursuit of medicine—what is the situation like in Singapore and Malaysia?

Pursuing medicine with a disability: The Singaporean and Malaysian medical scene

Even if uncommon, it is not unheard of. There are several examples of individuals who have successfully pursued medicine, in spite of having disabilities. Although there are physicians who are able to practise medicine alongside their disabilities—the catch is that a majority of them have had to complete their medical degree in another country.

1. Dr William Tan

Born in 1957, he contracted polio at the age of two, which caused him to become paralysed from the waist down.

During kindergarten, he was bullied by his classmates, who pulled his ears and even hit his head. Dr Tan was eventually expelled when he started to retaliate by catching their hands and biting them.

Despite this, Dr Tan went on to prove his academic competency by acing his primary through pre-university education, and completed his medical studies in Newcastle University. He even won scholarships to study at Harvard and Oxford, and is now a neuroscientist and medical doctor.

2. Dr Joseph Heng

Born profoundly deaf, Dr Joseph Heng received a bionic ear at the age of 12. He was one of the first few people in Singapore to have undergone a cochlear implantation—where an electronic device is implanted in the inner ear through surgery, to stimulate the hearing nerve directly.

Dr Heng went on to achieve straight As in his O and A Levels before completing a bioengineering and medical degree in the US.

3. Dr Darren Chua

Nonetheless, there are some cases whereby the student is physically unable to pursue medicine due to his or her disability. One such example is Dr Darren Chua.

Dr Chua was hit by a massive stroke right after he graduated from medical school. The right side of his body was affected by the stroke, and he had to have a quarter of his skull removed to relieve the pressure from a blood clot.

Although the missing part of his skull was replaced half a year later, Dr Chua had to learn how to use the right side of his body all over again. He was unable to practise medicine as a result of the stroke; but it did not stop him from undertaking the two-year Masters in Science research programme at the Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine.

Although most medical programmes in Singapore and Malaysia require students to go through a medical examination prior to admission, the information provided on what kinds of disabilities that can be accommodated is still limited. MIMS

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