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‘NO profession can truly claim to be fully competent unless it has taken stock of the role of disabled people as professionals.’ So says Ms Anne Tynan, author of a recent report on vets and disability. The report, ‘Time to take stock: disability and professional competence’,* examines the extent to which teaching and learning in veterinary medicine can be opened up to disabled students. As such, it is interesting in its own right. It also raises questions about professional identity, and what being a veterinary surgeon is all about.
The report has been produced by DIVERSE, the UKVeterinary Medicine Disability Project, as part of a three-year initiative funded by the Higher Education Funding Council for England. The project has been managed by Ms Tynan and led by the Royal Veterinary College, with collaboration from the five other UK veterinary schools, the Higher Education Academy Subject Centre for Medicine, Dentistry and Veterinary Medicine, and the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons. The RCVS, the General Medical Council and the General Dental Council were all represented on the project steering group, reflecting the relevance of the topic across the healthcare professions. Disabled students, and disabled members of the three professions, all had input into the report.
The report deals specifically with the essential ‘Day 1’ competences required of new veterinary graduates by the RCVS. It attempts to match these with reasonable adjustments that could be made to enable disabled people to undertake a veterinary degree, in the context of legislation, codes of practice and other guidance to prevent discrimination against those with disabilities. One of the precepts of the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education’s ‘Code of practice for the assurance of academic quality and standards in higher education’ is that educational programme specifications should include ‘no unnecessary barriers to access by disabled people’. The code also requires that ‘programme specifications and descriptions give sufficient information to enable students with disabilities and staff to make informed decisions about the ability to complete the programme’.As the DIVERSE report points out, the phrases ‘no unnecessary barriers’ and ‘make informed decisions about the ability to complete the programme’ indicate that there may be necessary barriers, in the form of competence standards, and that some individuals may decide that they are unable to complete a particular programme. However, it says, ‘the starting point for veterinary schools and other institutions must be that a disabled person could complete the studies necessary to qualify as a veterinary surgeon unless there is clear evidence to the contrary’.
The report takes a systematic approach, highlighting relevant disability discrimination legislation and guidance, and listing the 41 essential competences required of new graduates, as defined by the RCVS in three main areas: general professional skills and attributes; underpinning knowledge and understanding; and practical competences. It then identifies the specific purpose of each competence and the manner in which it is achieved, as well as reviewing the extent to which each requirement might change in the future. Next, it considers the consequences of each of the required competences for disabled people, discussing both positive and adverse aspects. The final section of the report examines whether the purpose for which any competence is applied could be achieved in a way that does not have an adverse impact on disabled people. In doing so, it takes into account reasonable adjustments that could be made and gives examples of the range of coping strategies used by individuals with different forms of disability.
Some of the observations in the report are relevant to the ‘omnicompetence’ debate, in that while some of the competences could relate to many other professions, it is the particular combination of all of them which currently defines the role of a veterinary surgeon. This role is in itself being considered in the ongoing discussion on a possible new Veterinary Surgeons Act which, in introducing licences to practise in specific areas, could potentially introduce new opportunities for disabled people in the future.
A key message from the report is that there is no ‘one size fits all’ approach to the subject and that the only effective way in which the actual, rather than the potential, impact of individual competences on disabled people can be assessed is on a case-by-case basis. The DIVERSE report points out that everyone has different strengths and weaknesses, and that ‘All students and healthcare professionals, including veterinary surgeons, devise their own particular set of coping strategies for areas of work that pose them difficulties as individuals for one reason or another. This is not unique to disabled people. People develop their own preferred way of doing things. The crucial factor is that such ways must meet the desired professional goals whilst fitting in with the way that others work. Non-disabled professionals are usually able to negotiate reasonable ways of working with one another so there is no reason why this should not also happen when a disabled professional is involved.’
The 210-page report should certainly stimulate thought and highlights a number of challenges for the future. In the words of its author, ‘Disability does not dwell on a different planet; it is already here among us all, and recognising that fact might help many to rethink their views on disabled people working as veterinary surgeons.’