Monday, February 23, 2015

The Power of Inclusion: An Interview with Dr. Cheri Blauwet

As a wheelchair racer on the US Paralympic team, Dr. Cheri Blauwet won a total of seven medals before retiring from competitive sports.  She started racing in high school and went on to excel as a college athlete.  She is currently an instructor in sports medicine and rehabilitation at Stanford Medical School, and an attending physician at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital. 

She visited the University of Wyoming this week to discuss on-campus access, opportunity, and the value of inclusion.

She first attended college at the University of Arizona, which she describes as supportive and encouraging.  Stanford Medical School was “tougher.”  Dr. Blauwet was their first wheelchair user, and had to collaborate with her school to improve access.  Proactive inclusion and on-campus visibility at Arizona helped give her confidence and a sense of her own potential: “Being shown, even in your first year, what’s really possible is really productive.” 

 Basic access for students with disabilities is still a problem, especially at older campuses.  Those venerable ivy-covered buildings tend to have a lot of stairs, and administrators may see alterations like ramps and elevators as unsightly or costly. 

Transparency and communication are important steps towards inclusion, so that students don’t need to ask for support or wonder whether stigma is a factor in the admissions process.  “Students need to look for a strong sense of mentorship and collaboration.  In residency training, you do start to claim some autonomy, so you can shift towards fields that suit you.”

Dr. Blauwet believes that more traditional medical schools can have especially rigid attitudes: “Some schools still feel that every student has to be able to do every physical task.  Some have taken a much more proactive approach—what is your goal?  A good example is a quadriplegic student who wants to be a psychiatrist.  Maybe he doesn’t have to stand upright at an operating table and suture something.”

Likewise, student athletes confront the belief that “it just isn’t possible.”  Athletes with disabilities have taken the lead in campus sports. “Any group of people can start a club or an intermural team.  That’s already happening.”  Varsity status, however, is less available to athletes with disabilities.  Athletic department heads may see them as negligible or believe that they take funding away from ‘real’ athletes. “It always comes down to the same challenges for athletes who are not part of the mainstream.  For women’s sports it was this argument that there aren’t enough women even interested…it’s actually very reminiscent.” 

Sports medicine incorporates some of the same bias.  “Sports medicine physicians are used to working with robust, healthy athletes who acquire an injury.  Their big fear is that people with disabilities are already very sick people and then they’re going to play sports, so the risk is going to be that much higher.”

This problem is not limited to sports medicine, but extends to health care providers in general.  Impairment is equated with invalidity, such that it is difficult for doctors to see patients with disabilities as healthy, active people.  As a result, patients are less likely to receive appropriate care and perhaps less likely to feel respected by their doctors.  One solution has been to invite people with disabilities to speak to medical students about their experiences, positive and negative.  Medical students learn to see patients with disabilities as individuals with diverse needs and hear firsthand about the impact of ableism. 

Dr. Blauwet says that this misperception is changing: “We have leaders in sports medicine leaning to work with this population, and that brings it down to earth.”  A sports-medicine practitioner herself, she recommends a ‘down-to-earth,’ patient-centered approach: “90 percent of the issues you will encounter with an athlete with a disability are what you see with any athlete—overuse, trauma injuries—and you treat them exactly the same.”

Watch this space for an upcoming post about disability awareness at WyCEHG!

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