For quite some time now, I have been non-specific about the prejudices surrounding people with disabilities in veterinary medicine. But the reality is that if we keep talking vaguely about the "stigmas" and "discrimination" that are woven into the foundations of this field, we will never be rid of them. It's time we start talking about the specific contributors to ableism in veterinary medicine.
On average, there is about a 11.7% acceptance rate to veterinary school. So it's no secret that this industry is extremely exclusive. There are still many people in this profession who believe that people with disabilities and/or chronic illness should not be able to receive a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine degree. Some members of the veterinary community believe that people who depend on wheelchairs and other mobility aids should not receive a DVM because they wouldn’t be able to execute the clinical skills required of a large animal or equine practitioner. Other members believe that those who are deaf or hard-of-hearing should not receive a DVM degree because they may not be able to auscultate the heart and lungs. There is a view amongst some veterinarians that this profession is for the elite of the elite, the ultimate private members club. They believe you must be able to perform every aspect of every avenue of veterinary medicine proficiently or you are not worthy of the degree at all. In their minds, if you cannot rectally palpate a live cow you are not worthy of the degree, even if you plan to exclusively practice small animal medicine or work in a laboratory or corporate setting. Completing these tasks on accessible models is not good enough for them because they view this as “cheapening” the degree rather than making the degree more accessible. If you cannot work a 12+ hour shift in clinic, be on-call overnight, and show up to rounds sharp-minded at 7am, then you do not belong in veterinary medicine. It is this mindset that needs to evolve before we can even dream of normalizing didactic and clinical accommodations, as well as medical leave of absences.
We’ve already discussed the need for a mindset change, but how do you actually initiate that change? You talk about it. The veterinary community needs to not only listen to disabled perspectives but include them in policy changes. It is no secret that veterinary medicine lacks diversity; however, many veterinary organizations and institutions forget that disability is a part of diversity. Disability can be a very private issue, but it does not have to be a secret issue. Many veterinary professionals are scared to vocalize their need for accommodation to their schools or employers for fear of backlash and lack of understanding. Especially with rising numbers of invisible disabilities, there is a certain amount of skepticism that one is almost guaranteed to be met with. People with invisible disabilities are immediately vetted with intrusive questions coated with a default assumption that we are simply trying to cheat the system to make our lives easier. But imagine how their fear might change if they knew their school or place of work was actively looking to encourage people with disabilities to join the veterinary medicine field rather than treating it like an exclusive club. Imagine if veterinary colleges actively advertised how they support their disabled students (or if I really were to dream deeply), if they actively sought out more disabled students to diversify their student body.
What if veterinary medicine had a supportive complex instead of a superiority complex?