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Making it in medicine

Although life as a deaf medical student can be frustrating, Ashna is overcoming the obstacles and is passionate about raising awareness of deafness.

When Ashna (22) found out that 46% of people don’t think deaf people can be doctors, she was shocked.

“I went to a grammar school which encouraged me to be ambitious,” she remembers. “They didn’t try to discourage me from anything – it was the opposite! I think they were quite naïve about how hard it would be for me to study medicine.”

Originally from India, doctors there first said Ashna’s hearing was fine. It wasn’t until the family moved to the UK, when Ashna was six, that hearing tests revealed she had a moderate to severe hearing loss. She was referred to her local sensory support service and assigned a Teacher of the Deaf (ToD), who supported the family, even during Ashna’s first hospital appointment.

“Mum was nervous about the appointment,” explains Ashna. “She’d just moved to a new country, and now she had to get to grips with my deafness. My ToD came with us on the train and was lovely and supportive. Mum still talks about that train journey and what a difference she made.

“I had four different ToDs while I was at school. Looking back, they were so helpful. They gave deaf awareness lessons to my class and reminded my teachers to use my radio aid.

“If I had a problem, they liaised with my school to change things, so the pressure wasn’t on me. Now I’m at university and have to advocate for myself, I appreciate that more.”

Ashna did well at school but wasn’t sure what to do next. “As a 17-year-old, it's really difficult to know what you want to do with the rest of your life,” she says. With encouragement from her ToDs, parents and school, Ashna applied to study medicine at the University of Cambridge.

“My parents were really supportive,” says Ashna. “They never made me feel like there was anything I couldn’t do. They didn’t put pressure on me; it was more like, why not give it a go, and if you don’t get in, you don’t get in.” Ashna’s application was successful, and her ToDs helped her to apply for Disabled Students’ Allowance (DSA) and put her in touch with Cambridge’s Disability Resource Centre (DRC). However, Ashna initially found the move difficult.

“I didn’t think I’d find my first term as hard as I did,” she remembers. “It was a huge shock to be away from my family. I had to advocate for myself much more than I did at school, which was frustrating.”

Ashna’s DSA paid for notetakers, but they didn’t always help. “There was a lot of admin work,” she explains. “I had to approve every lecture they came to. Sometimes they’d be late, so I’d miss the first few minutes of a lecture, or their notes weren’t comprehensive. It wasn’t their fault, but it added to the feeling that I was missing out.” Eventually, Ashna stopped using notetakers. With support from the DRC, she asked her teachers and lecturers to email their slides and used speech-to-text technology and radio aids to access lectures.

“It sounds pessimistic, but realistically, I will miss out on things. I try my best to access everything but if I can’t, that’s OK. It’s OK if I don’t hear everything. I might not have got the same marks if I wasn’t deaf, but deafness has given me lots of other opportunities, like understanding how it feels to be a patient.”

Ashna also signed up to become Disability Officer for her college’s student union. “That role probably helped me more than I helped other people!” Ashna laughs. “It was useful to learn how the system works. “I recently made friends with another deaf student. Her experience of growing up deaf was different to mine, but there are still similarities. I have a great support system – my parents, cousins and friends are always there for me – but it’s nice to have a deaf friend who understands exactly how I feel.”

When Ashna started her clinical years, she had to advocate for herself again, telling other medical staff about her deafness, handing out clear face masks and researching stethoscopes that would work with her hearing aids. She wears a badge on her lanyard to remind colleagues of her deafness.

“Often when I explain that I’m deaf, they’re suddenly apologetic and sometimes surprised that I’m doing medicine at all,” says Ashna. “It’s like they don’t expect me to be in this space. It makes me wonder, is it also because I’m a woman? Or because I’m brown? There are layers to my identity.

“There’s a lot of background work to being a disabled medical student. I’m not just trying to process speech while I’m working, I’m also processing how other people perceive me. The mental load can be really tiring.

“For example, it’s only a small thing, but a quintessential part of medical school is wearing your stethoscope around your neck. Mine doesn’t look like that, which makes me feel like less of a medic.”

To help manage her emotions, Ashna started a blog. “Initially it was somewhere for me to vent about how I was feeling, but recently it’s become more about raising awareness and helping other people think they could also do medicine.

“Some careers might be harder because of your disability, but don’t let that limit you. If it doesn’t work out, at least you’ve tried. If you feel you can’t do something, then it’s the system that needs to change, not you.”

Summer 2023 Families magazine