I am currently a second-year medical student at the University of Ottawa – a program where the applicant acceptance rate is roughly 8 per cent, with 3500 applicants annually. Many people think that because I am in medical school I am a bright and a gifted student, but I disagree. I am a medical student who has learning disabilities. Being both a student learning medicine and a student with learning disabilities is unheard of by many people; students with learning disabilities can often be labelled incompetent and unable to succeed.
I was diagnosed with a learning disability at the age of 8 after my teachers and parents realized I was falling behind other students in my class. As a result, I spent most of my early school years in an ESL (English as a Second Language) and in an IEP (Individualized Education Plan) program. Growing up with a learning disability was extremely difficult. The stigma associated with a learning disability can be debilitating. I was embarrassed that I had a medical condition that always made me feel incompetent, and as such, I never asked for any help in school.
I had difficulties reading, writing and memorizing information, which for the most part are skills that are emphasized in school. I graduated high school as an average student: I wasn’t the class valedictorian, nor did I win any scholarships. It wasn’t until university that I started to accept my learning disabilities as a part of me. I started to ask for help and to use resources available to me as a student with learning disabilities (extra time to write exams and an isolated testing room), and learnt materials in ways that capitalized on my strengths. I would spend countless hours each day learning and understanding the materials at my own pace. This meant that it would take me substantially longer to reach my goals than an average student in my class, but it was the only way I could succeed in school. Before I knew it, things took a different turn. I started excelling in school and started earning scholarships for my academic achievements. I was at the top of my class.
I could have never dreamed of what I had achieved in university. I was at a point where I could choose any career I wanted. I wasn’t limited by my learning disability or my grades. Now, I wanted a career in medicine. I felt that studying medicine as a student with a disability would give me a different perspective on life and on the quality of care I would provide to my patients, a point of view that many of the colleagues in my class don’t have. Many were prodigies, academically gifted, or extremely promising students when they were in public school.
I, on the other hand, had failed over and over throughout my life as a result of my disability. My learning disability, like many other medical conditions, is something that cannot be treated. I understand what it feels like for my patients to fail, having done their best, and I know how to care for it. Many patients have said that the “healing” aspect to medicine is not the treatments or medications physicians prescribe, but rather the bedside care physicians are able to provide and I strongly believe that my greatest weakness will be my greatest strength as a physician.
However, being immersed in a culture where all the members are at the top echelon of academia can sometimes be discouraging. I am constantly learning with colleagues who clearly grasp and apply school materials at a much quicker pace than I can, which can be frustrating at times. As a result, they often perform better than I do when it comes to evaluations. Further more, I feel that there are some stigmas towards those who have disabilities in medicine. I can recall an encounter with a family physician late in his practice who criticized my aptitude as a medical student with a learning disability.
There are a couple of things I have learnt from my journey:
A medical condition can significantly affect your self-esteem and self-worth, especially when you perceive it the wrong way. You need to accept it and you need to realize that it doesn’t hinder your ability to succeed.
Take full advantage and explore accommodations and resources available to you early on, whether it is at school or in the community. You will be surprised at what is out there to help you be successful.
Looking back to where I came from, I am extremely grateful that I am fortunate enough to learn and practice medicine. I believe the education system is becoming more supportive of students who have disabilities than it ever was. With resources now available to students that weren’t available before, students with disabilities have the chance to succeed. I am a prime example of this.