Dr. Meeks: Leader Who Has Paved the Way for People with Disabilities in Medicine
By: Jasmine Lopez, B.S., B.A.
Lisa M. Meeks, Ph.D., M.A., is a leader known for her passion for advancing disability access and inclusion in medicine. Her expertise and enthusiasm translate into her work as an Associate Professor of Family Medicine and Learning Health Sciences at the University of Michigan Medicine. As Principal Investigator (P.I.) of the Meeks Lab, her research covers topics such as wellness among residents, the representation of physicians with disabilities, and trajectories of medical students with disabilities.
Beyond research, Dr. Meeks has created a flourishing community as the Executive Director of the Docs With Disabilities Initiative (DWDI). She uplifts the voices of doctors with disabilities across health professions (medicine, dentistry, nursing, pharmacy, and more) through the #DocsWithDisabilties Podcast, supports disability resource providers (DRPs) at medical schools, and leads a mentorship program for Women with Disabilities in Medicine. Her work has spread nationwide through collaborations with organizations like the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) on resources to guide institutions and support students with disabilities. As students, we can find community, mentorship, and resources through initiatives leaders like Dr. Meeks have created to remind us that we are not alone.
Interview with Dr. Lisa Meeks
Jasmine Lopez, Alumni Engagement Committee Co-Chair of the SHPEP National Alumni Advisory Board, AAMC Biomedical Research Workforce Specialist, and DWDI Intern, interviewed Dr. Meeks to explore the impact of her work, advice for students, and her personal perspectives as a leader in academic medicine.
Disclaimer: For the purposes of clarity and length, the interview with Dr. Meeks has been edited.
JASMINE: How have you seen your work through platforms such as Docs With Disabilities and the AAMC contribute to a cultural shift towards the inclusion of people with disabilities in medicine?
DR. MEEKS: “Docs With Disabilities builds a community of people. When there’s [only] one of you, or you perceive there’s [only] one of you, [the] fear of bias, stigma, the insecurities of not being good enough, or being broken in many cases for people with disabilities, will prevail in your head. [However,] when you see multiple people coming together in a space and identifying similarly, [suddenly,] you start to see the normalization of this concept [the representation of people with disabilities in medicine].” The Docs With Disabilities Podcast has been a significant platform in normalizing and amplifying the stories of health professionals with disabilities.
Dr. Meeks also described how seeing her team’s research published has helped validate the inclusion of people with disabilities in medicine as an important topic. “When I think about seeing our work shared on the AAMC platform or co-creating new content in partnership with the AAMC—that’s leadership. [L]eadership [is] saying, this topic is important enough for us to give it space and for us to create resources. I believe wholeheartedly that the leadership at AAMC values people with disabilities, that they belong in medicine and there’s some restitution to be made for historical wrongs, similar to many other marginalized groups. In that way, it has validated for the broader community in medicine that this is a safe place for meaningful conversations and for people to collaborate.”
JASMINE: What is your proudest accomplishment on your journey of advocating for the inclusion of students with disabilities in medicine?
DR. MEEKS: “For me, it’s always about the students and watching them rise, grow, learn how to do research, helping them understand the best mechanisms for advocacy, counseling them, and mentoring them when they’re having difficulty in a specific situation. Hands down, seeing the students and the trainees thrive within our space is my greatest accomplishment.”
“If I were to do nothing else, I have watched a generation of people proudly identify as disabled and start to do this work.”
JASMINE: In your research letter, “Estimated Prevalence of US Physicians With Disabilities,” your team found that physicians who self-identified as having a disability also identified with other underrepresented identities, [including] regarding race, ethnicity, and sexual orientation. How has the importance of intersectionality been interwoven into your work?
Dr. Meeks shared the importance of being inclusive of the intersection between underrepresented identities and disabilities from her own experiences. “I wasn’t ever taught not to talk about my status,” she said, “but it was this covert messaging to pretend like you were from somewhere else. If you had a disability or grew up poor, [you did] not talk about that because it would be viewed as a weakness. It wasn’t until I got to Michigan that I actually felt comfortable saying I have a community college degree, I was a first generation [student], and I grew up poor. Part of that was society starting to talk about it and normaliz[ing] it.”
JASMINE: Fear, stigma, bias, and discrimination have come up in your work to create institutional changes in policies and attitudes towards people with disabilities in medicine. For students who may have these experiences, what organizations or support would you advise them to seek?
DR. MEEKS: “The hard thing with experiencing this is that it may be unconscious bias, unconscious discrimination, or coming from a place of actually trying to support the student. So many times, you’ll get benevolent ableism, which is still harmful. [Benevolent ableism] may be when someone says, ‘you have a disability, so don’t worry about doing that.’ [In this case, the student does] not have access to the full curriculum and [is] not being treated like everyone else. People are so unaware of their own biases and behavior that it may be unintentional.
[However,] If this is someone who is trying to harm you or keep you from progressing in a program, then I think formal channels are the best way to go. But if this is somebody who is just not aware of their biases, it’s having that difficult conversation with them or having a mentor who can help you have a conversation with them to teach why this interaction or statement was so upsetting to you. I think that’s really important, giving people an opportunity to learn and grow. Having a community is [also] so helpful. Talking to somebody that’s experienced [that] or just understands, and having that validated is so helpful, even if that person wasn’t in your circle before. Because it’s [about] somebody who understands your experience. That is so important.”
Dr. Meeks also shared that learning how to read statistics can empower students with disabilities and underrepresented backgrounds by allowing them to utilize credible information and research. This is important for navigating misinformation from pre-health advisors or peers who may attempt to deter them from requesting accommodations or pursuing medical careers. She further advises students to take leadership classes and get involved in committees when those opportunities arise.
“We need underrepresented students to start taking a role in the training, [and] a role in leadership. The people that have influence over the structures are leaders and committees. We keep coming up with resources for the individual to navigate a system that’s broken versus fixing the system. That’s harmful. It’s like sending someone into Survivor and seeing who makes it out. That’s the wrong approach, in my opinion. For many who are underrepresented or who come from being on the fringe of privilege, it still feels very much like, ‘will I be voted off the island?’. You’re trying to learn and help people, but you carry this [additional] cognitive load, [while having] to navigate a space. You shouldn’t [have to].”
The Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) extends its appreciation to Dr. Meeks for her dedication to paving the way for people with disabilities in healthcare. Dr. Meeks and the Docs With Disabilities Initiative (DWDI) provide a myriad of resources for students at different levels of their careers. Please refer to those linked below:
- #DocsWithDisabilities Podcast
- Women with Disabilities in Medicine Mentor Group
- Josiah Macy Jr. Foundation: “Exploring the Barriers to Inclusion for Medical Trainees with Disabilities Webinar Series”
- Josiah Macy Jr. Foundation: “Barriers and Belief Systems Webinar Series: Exploring the Barriers to Inclusion for Nurses with Disabilities”
- “Assessment of Accommodation Requests Reported by a National Sample of US MD Students by Category of Disability”
- “The Performance and Trajectory of Medical Students With Disabilities From a Multisite, Multicohort Study”
- “Examination of Medical College Admission Test Scores and US Medical Licensing Examination Step 1 and Step 2 Clinical Knowledge Scores Among Students With Disabilities”
Please refer to the AAMC’s resources for students and collaborations with Dr. Meeks listed below:
- Paving the way for physicians with disabilities
- Disclosure at All Points, UME and GME: Guidance on Disability Disclosure for Learners
- Separating Fact from Fiction: Debunking Disability Myths and Addressing Legitimate Concerns
AAMC Personal Perspectives:
- I am a medical student with significant hearing loss. Here’s what the pandemic has been like for me and others with my disability
- Disabilities are not binary. Why do we treat them that way?
- Leslie Pensa,
- Blake Charlton
- Emily Hayward
- Ariel Dempsey
- Rebecca M. Lynch
- Damien M. Luviano, MD
- Donald Egan
- Tiffany Chan
AAMC on Accommodations:
- MCAT Exam with Accommodations
- AAMC PREview Application for Accommodations
- How Do You Know if You Need Accommodated Testing?