Do Doctors Discriminate Against People With Disabilities?

A study finds some disturbing news about healthcare discrimination and disability

Ed Tobias avatar

by Ed Tobias |

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I Am Not The Doctor For You” is the title of a shocking new study published earlier this month in the journal Health Affairs. It reports that a number of doctors acknowledged being uncomfortable with treating people with a disability.

The study was conceived of by Lisa Iezzoni, MD, a professor of medicine at Harvard University. Over years of talking with people with disabilities, she noticed a big difference in the quality of treatment they reported receiving from doctors, compared with able-bodied people.

“Everywhere I looked, there were disparities,” Iezzoni told The New York Times.

So she gathered some primary care physicians and specialists from the U.S. in video focus groups and asked them how they felt when treating people with disabilities. The doctors couldn’t see that Iezzoni, who has multiple sclerosis, was sitting in a wheelchair. Some of their answers to her questions were eye-openers.

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A lack of knowledge

The study notes that many of the doctors “expressed explicit bias toward people with disabilities and described strategies for discharging them from their practices.” One seemed unconcerned about accessibility, stating, “I know for a fact our building is not accessible.”

Several complained that a disabled patient takes too long to interact with, when doctors can only spare 15 minutes per appointment. But brief doctor appointments are a problem for able-bodied patients, too.

Many worried about lacking knowledge about caring for people with disabilities, particularly when doing things like transferring a patient onto an exam table or a scale.

It even quotes one doctor who believed the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) does more harm than good. “I truthfully think the [ADA] makes the disabled person more of a target and doesn’t help them but hurts them. Because a lot of us, me personally, are afraid to treat them. … [S]o I look at it as not [a] helpful act, but I look at it as a hurtful act,” the doctor said.

No surprise to some

In the Times story, reporter Gina Kolata wrote that patients with disabilities she spoke with confirmed similar problems as mentioned in the study. One patient, who has a bone disorder called osteogenesis imperfecta, said an appointment was canceled after he told staff at the doctor’s office that he uses a wheelchair.

Another person, who uses a walker and a wheelchair, told Kolata that some doctors “will find every excuse not to see you. They will say, ‘Our machinery isn’t good enough for you. Maybe you shouldn’t come in.’” One physician, who worried about transferring him to an exam table, told him, “I really don’t know what to do with you. Maybe you should go elsewhere.”

What to do?

The study suggests that accommodations in healthcare settings for people with disabilities frequently are not provided. Patients with disabilities often receive substandard care, and in some cases, they are refused care.

The researchers suggest mandated documentation of disability status and accommodation needs by clinicians and practices so that they can prepare ahead of time. They also recommend improvements in medical training regarding how to care for those of us with a disability.

The study’s authors caution, however, that these steps may not be sufficient “to ensure equal quality and accessibility of care for people with disabilities.” Yet, other than suggesting that those in healthcare use “all available tools (education, publicity, lawsuits, and policy levers)” to address these problems, the authors make no specific suggestions.

I like to think, despite what this study reports, that most physicians are not like this. But even a few who think this way are too many.

What would you propose to reduce discrimination against people with disabilities in doctors’ offices? Please share in the comments below. You’re invited to visit my personal blog at

Note: Multiple Sclerosis News Today is strictly a news and information website about the disease. It does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website. The opinions expressed in this column are not those of Multiple Sclerosis News Today or its parent company, BioNews, and are intended to spark discussion about issues pertaining to multiple sclerosis.


Leanne Broughton avatar

Leanne Broughton

I have not been to my new GP since my disability has increased. I do not think I could get on an exam table on my own, also worry about how narrow it is and how .i would get up. So many things a disabled person needs to consider. The old me would never have thought about any of it.

Ed Tobias avatar

Ed Tobias

Hi Leanne,

Have you raised your concerns with your GP? You shouldn't ignore your general health, you know.


Broughton Leanne Broughton avatar

Broughton Leanne Broughton

We are in contact by phone for concerns and prescriptions. I wil be followed by visits when required. I believe he is an empathetic doctor.

Ed Tobias avatar

Ed Tobias

Glad to hear that, Leanne.


Nigel Watts avatar

Nigel Watts

I live in the UK and find all the doctors at my GP surgery could not be more helpful, with one in particular taking me through a range of procedures to treat the Lymphedema that is affecting my right leg, from the knee to the end of my foot.

I have Multiple Sclerosis, diagnosed 39 years ago that changed to Secondary Progressive MS about 7 years ago. I am still mobile using mobility aids, and have adaptations to my car that allows me to continue driving.

I visit a specialist gym for 2 hours twice a week. I also do voluntary work at home for the charity MS-UK, whose offices are a 5 minute drive away if I need to review sensitive data.

Ed Tobias avatar

Ed Tobias

Hi Nigel,

It looks like you're in good hands and I'm glad that you're able to do all that you do.


Harel Prusky avatar

Harel Prusky

its very sad that this is the situation. I know though that where i live in Israel doctors are concerned about me and since i cannot walk, just in a wheel chair, the family doctor comes to visit me at home, asks questions, give prescriptions and worries about me. its called "Home Care". so i feel lucky that thats the way it is in Israel. however i still wonder what is the reason for not finding a cure for the disease, only medication that "might" slow the process of the disease. that is the very sad part of the big problem. so many searches and researches, and no solution. why suffer so much without any real help.??? also if one medication doesnt work, go to another medication, and all of them have one problem or another, and we need to go through an MRI test which is quite difficult (at least for me) i did several but they just see if the disease is progressing or whatever;. but no help on this matter. i wantd to know what is the result of suggested steroids? as i hear bad symptoms taking them.
thanks for your attention.
harel prusky

Ed Tobias avatar

Ed Tobias

Hi Harel,

It sounds as if you have a good family doctor and I'm glad. About steroids...the can help reverse some symptoms temporarily, but using them too often can lead to deterioration of your bones, making them very fragile. As for a cure, I have great hope that the work being done to create a vaccine to prevent the Epstein-Barr virus will, effectively, also be a vaccine to prevent MS. It wouldn't help those of us who already have MS but it could prevent, or reduce, future MS cases. Let's hope!



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