Articles and Case Studies

Disability does not mean inability

01 Jun 2022

Dr Dinesh Palipana OAM

by Dr Dinesh Palipana OAM

We have an incredible opportunity – a privilege to do good in our world that reaches far beyond the practice of medicine alone. However, to draw from Thomas Jefferson, we must be eternally vigilant about protecting and using that privilege for the greater good.

The journey through the profession isn’t easy for someone with a disability. That’s not because of inability, but rather because of our preconceived notions about what someone can and cannot do. Even worse, it might be based on our prejudices of what someone should and should not do.

But people with disabilities across the world are overcoming these barriers and misconceptions. There is, for example, an emergency physician with quadriplegia; an orthopaedic surgeon using a wheelchair; and even a director of nephrology who is paralysed from the chest down. There is a deaf general practitioner; a blind rehabilitation physician; and a paediatric neurologist with cerebral palsy. Yet, these doctors are few and far between.

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, 4.4 million Australians or 17.7 per cent of the population had a disability in 2018. That’s one in five people. However, on many of the tables I’ve sat on, I’ve been the only doctor with a visible disability.

Immediately after that statistic was generated, the COVID-19 pandemic hit. It was a difficult time for the world, but especially challenging for people with disabilities who faced life threats like healthcare rationing part from the social problems.

In Australia, there are still significant attitudinal – but rarely logistical – challenges for accepting doctors with disabilities into our medical profession. Over the years, I’ve heard comments like, “What if they fall from the wheelchair?” or “Will the patients take them seriously?”.

We need to remember that the field of medicine encompasses a wide range of specialties, each requiring different skill sets and physical requirements. And just like any other doctor wishing to specialise, a person with a disability will seek a specialty that best suits their capabilities.

It’s not enough to just pay lip service

Our country has invested significant amounts of money into the National Disability Insurance Scheme, the National Injury Insurance Scheme, and JobAccess – programs designed to enable people to live life to the fullest while contributing to our community. These schemes send a powerful message – that Australians take disability inclusion seriously.

Despite all this, it takes continuing effort to maintain progress.

For example, I received a letter in 2022 from a particular medical fraternity declining a request to join them. It stated, “Please note that the decision outlined above in no way detracts from the admiration that the … or its individual members or staff have for you and your achievements in the profession of medicine to this time.” In other words, no matter how far you’ve come, we still don’t want you as a part of our tribe, even though we talk about valuing diversity and inclusion.

Are we doing our part as doctors?

We, in the Australian medical profession, can be a beacon for the rest of the world. Our responsibilities not only span direct patient care, but the betterment of our society as well. That’s because we have the honour of a credible voice.

Indeed, historically doctors have been a voice for many important social matters. Professional associations of physicians fought the Bulgarian government when they were trying to hurt the Jewish people in World War II. Doctors were voices in the American Civil Rights Movement. The Physicians for Human Rights organisation in the United States even shared the 1997 Nobel Peace Prize for their work.

In addition to my work as a doctor in an emergency department, I’m proud to have co-founded Doctors with Disabilities Australia. I’m proud to work with the Disability Royal Commission as Senior Advisor; to be an Ambassador for the IncludeAbility program at the Human Rights Commission; and to do a range of work that will hopefully make a meaningful contribution – at least in a small way – to ensure a brighter future for Australia.


"The barriers and separations we create are just social structures. We have to take these away to create utopia. Why do we always wait for tomorrow? Let’s just do things and make it happen. Action is what is necessary. Action today."


Halfway through medical school, a catastrophic car accident left Dinesh with a cervical spinal cord injury. Despite the hardship, he persevered with his medical studies and became the first quadriplegic doctor to begin work in Queensland.


Dinesh’s book, STRONGER is due for release in July 2022 – available to pre-order at: 9781760984786/stronger.


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