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The Essential Role of Communication for Disability Resource Professionals

Author: Dr. Laura Clemmons, Co-chair Access in Medicine Program (DWDI)

1.	mage description: A group of health professions students and administrators focused on a dark skinned woman wearing a blue suit with a white top. Others in the frame are wearing scrubs and business attire.

Disability Resource Professionals (DRPs) are uniquely qualified, talented individuals who engage in countless interactions with students, faculty, staff, and other professionals across various fields, programs, and positions. Our role involves understanding potential barriers and identifying accommodations for students with disabilities, striving to implement these solutions collaboratively. This is no easy task, requiring us to code-switch between environments and individuals, often within the same interaction.

To navigate these tasks, we rely on numerous tools at our disposal: other DRPs within our own or other institutions, committees, and professional groups. We also have a wealth of online resources from the Docs with Disabilities initiative, AHEAD, and the AAMC, including podcasts, programs, book clubs, and research that provide critical, up-to-date knowledge and guidance. Additionally, the Access in Medicine DRP days, the AHEAD and AAMC community platforms, and the AIM listserv provide us space to 'chat' with our fellow DRPs and consult. These tools help us enhance our work and fill any perceived gaps in knowledge.

One critical area for our work is the skill to have effective conversations and the need to step into discomfort when conversations don't go as expected. While DRPs need to be fluent in various areas, we must also thoughtfully consider how we enter conversations and establish relationships. Effective communication involves more than just introductions. We should familiarize ourselves with our audience and the environment we are entering. Understanding that defined success (seeking a specific outcome) can shift during a conversation is important. To create a sense of comfort in the unknown, we might research people or locations (schools, clinical wards, etc.) and even schedule visits. This preparation helps us engage in conversations with a sense of steadiness and professionalism.

However, preparation alone is not enough. Our work requires participation in an interactive process with a desire to communicate, engage, and listen. Despite our preparation, we may sometimes find ourselves hesitant to speak up, especially if what we hear is unreasonable or unrealistic. This hesitation is something many students with disabilities might also experience due to power differentials in conversations.

We frequently list communication as a key skill in our job descriptions. Engaging in an interactive process requires listening, negotiating ideas and expectations, and hopefully arriving at resolutions. Successful communication might mean not achieving our initial goals but rather building relationships or laying the groundwork for future conversations. Success is not always about winning or getting what we set out for. It can be about developing processes, creating roadmaps, and understanding concerns and issues. Effective communication involves listening and sharing the reasons behind our requests, as highlighted in Simon Sinek's "The Art of Listening."

Entering complex spaces is challenging, especially for those of us who, due to personal or societal factors, may feel ambivalent or uncertain about how we will be perceived. As a woman of color with a non-apparent disability, I often worry about how my words will be received. Concerns about conflict can make us hesitant to engage in conversations, yet conflict can provide valuable learning opportunities. Our work depends on a collaborative, interactive process with students, faculty, staff, and medical professionals. It is crucial to listen and learn about these landscapes, enter these spaces with a desire to understand, and engage effectively. This approach helps build a community based on partnership, even if it means walking alongside conflict.

Curious about how we all communicate and collaborate within our positions?

Share your responses or bring your thoughts to an upcoming DRP Days:

Establishing Healthy Communication

Date: June 27th!

Time: 4-5 ET

Hosted by: Access in Medicine (AIM) Co-Chairs: Kara James and Laura Clemmons

Simon Sinek's "The Art of Listening"


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