In Their Own Words: UCSF Faculty, Staff and Students Reflect on Living and Working with a Disability

People living with disabilities – seen and unseen – comprise more than 12 percent of Americans, making this group one of the country’s largest minority populations, according to a 2015 report from the Pew Research Center. Within the UC San Francisco community, that number is even higher. In a recent campus survey, 16 percent of individuals at UCSF reported having a disability.

“Disability touches and will touch many if not most UCSF students, faculty, staff and patients,” said Bruce G. Flynn, director of UCSF Risk Management and Insurance Services, who serves on UCSF’s Chancellor’s Advisory Committee on Disability Issues. “That’s why showing people with a wide variety of unique challenges and abilities helps normalize the experience of disability and ensures that the UCSF culture is fully inclusive and embraces people with disabilities.”

We asked our participants four questions about their disability and how it has impacted their life and work at UCSF. See the slideshow above with excerpts from the interviews, or read their full responses below.


Joshua Unterman, Department of Orthotics and Prosthetics

How would you describe your disability?

At first glance you would not notice that I have Spastic Cerebral Palsy. I wear custom foot orthotics, custom shoes and a custom brace. But even with regular practice and exercise, I sometimes lose my balance for no good reason. I think of it as the “invisible wind” that I always have to be ready for.

How has your disability provided a perspective on your work?

I have firsthand experience as a person who wears orthotic devices. When someone says, “it hurts,” I know exactly what they mean, because I have had similar problems with the same pain. Working in the field of orthotics and also being a patient, I get a view of all sides of the device fabrication process. Having a disability led me towards a more creative career path that has a rewarding impact on people’s lives.

How has your disability shaped your life, and as a component of life, your work?

Walking and moving a little differently has given me a great appreciation for the world around me, and at times, a little different view of it. After wearing orthotic devices for 15 years, I know how important they are and that other people depend on their devices just as much as I do. When I make a device for someone, in the back of my mind I think of making it for myself. My disability has helped me become more creative and thoughtful, while wanting to help people.

What advice would you have for others?

Find something that is personally meaningful and make every piece a masterpiece.


Diane Ngo, MPA, capital budget analyst

How would you describe your disability?

I am a polio survivor. At six months old, I contracted the poliovirus in Vietnam, and the disease weakened my left arm and right leg. Today I walk and get around with the aid of a knee, ankle, and foot orthotic.

How has your disability provided a perspective on your work?

Living with my disability has provided me with a unique perspective of the world. It has defined guiding principles for me to work and live by, including humility, patience, adaptability, collaboration, and open-mindedness. In my work I try to adopt these same values when interacting with colleagues and serving the UCSF community.

How has your disability shaped your life, and as a component of life, your work?

The world may view contracting polio and living with physical and emotional disabilities as a disadvantage, however, I feel that it has not made me “disabled” but more “able” because I get to see the world through different lenses. It’s made me more compassionate for those in need, more passionate to advocate for those who do not have a voice, and better equipped to handle change. I wouldn’t be the person I am and care about the things that I do if it weren’t for my disability.

What advice would you have for others?

For those living with a disability, I encourage them to see their disability as an asset, for their unique perspectives can enrich the work that they do and positively benefit their community. For the greater public, I encourage all of us to pay attention to unconscious bias, to personally reflect on how we may perceive and judge others who appear different or have different perspectives.


Tim Montgomery, director of Student Disability Services

How would you describe your disability?

I have three diagnoses that impact my life: moderate to severe hearing loss, depression and arthritis.

How has your disability provided a perspective on your work?

My disabilities have allowed me to develop an understanding of the struggles that students with disabilities live with each day. Each person’s disability or condition is unique to that individual’s experience, so you can never have a one-size-fits-all mentality when working with disabilities. My disabilities have also made it clear that students with disabilities can be successful if they have the proper accommodations in place.

How has your disability shaped your life, and as a component of life, your work?

I do not believe they have helped me, and do not believe they help anyone else. They are conditions I have developed and therefore have had to figure out ways to adjust and live with them, with and without accommodations.

What advice would you have for others?

One of my main pieces of advice is to not view others with disabilities through your own lens. Understand that disabilities impact people in their own way and are unique to each of us, but do not define who we are. Try not to focus on our disabilities, but focus on us as people who have challenges but can still be successful.


Raziel Rizzo, student, Department of Physical Therapy

How would you describe your disability?

I am an incomplete spinal cord injury survivor. At the age of 13 I underwent a spinal fusion to correct the curvature I developed from scoliosis. A very intricate procedure caused complications that included paralysis from my waist-down and months in intensive care awaiting a miracle. Fighting to regain what I lost has been an ongoing battle, relearning to walk was a humbling and breathtaking experience, which brought to life a world of possibilities. Now 27, I still fight every second of every day to defy the odds and regain what was taken from me

How has your disability provided a perspective on your work?

As a byproduct of the trauma I went through, I fell in love with the field of physical therapy and essentially, this profession chose me. My injury has radically changed every aspect of my life. It forced me to grow up quickly, to realize the brevity and frailty of life, it ignited my desire to defy barriers that come from living with something that most people consider a disadvantage. I am not defined by my struggle, but instead refined as a product of what I endured.

How has your disability shaped your life, and as a component of life, your work?

I have never seen myself as disabled. I know my limitations and I’ve learned how to adapt, be creative, and live in a world that doesn’t make it easy for those of us with different modes of transportation. All in all it has made me a stronger version of myself. My circumstance has illuminated my sense of compassion for those who are suffering. Knowing the intricacies of pain and how interlocked it is with the human experience has increased my hunger to help those in similar situations.

What advice would you have for others?

I would encourage people to be more intentional about the words they use, and not in a hypersensitive manner, but to simply be mindful. Mindful of the facial expressions made, the stares, and preconceived notions they have of those who live their lives a little differently, who walk to a different cadence, or process things with a different rhythm in their mind. At the end of the day we all have something that is different, mine is just a little more visible.


Elena Rabago, School of Dentistry student

How would you describe your disability?

I was diagnosed with moderate-to-severe hearing loss in both ears when I was four years old. I currently wear hearing aids on both ears.

How has your disability provided a perspective on your work?

It has enabled me to be more considerate to my patients’ needs and has helped me be more patient when explaining any procedure, particularly to any elderly individuals who can’t hear or young adults who don’t understand.

How has your disability shaped your life, and as a component of life, your work?

It has helped me develop a strong relationship with my peers, professors and other people I’ve come across. In terms of my work, my disability has helped me develop and maintain a great work ethic. Before I was diagnosed with hearing loss, I was at risk of being held back in school. Luckily, the doctor found out about my hearing loss and my parents worked with me every day to catch up on all the learning I missed out on during my first four years, so that I’d no longer need to be held back. Since then I have always worked 110 percent, giving anything I do my absolutely best. 

What advice would you have for others?

Don’t let your disability limit you from doing what you want to do. Whether it’s an adventure, hobby or career, you can make it happen. Don’t be afraid to ask for or seek out resources. There is nothing wrong with using these, especially if they can help you achieve your goals. Remember to always enjoy life.


Cleofe Aquino, Patient Financial Services staff

How would you describe your disability?

I had a stroke three years ago and now have limited use of my right arm and hand. It’s extremely challenging, but I fight every day to overcome any obstacle that comes my way.

How has your disability provided a perspective on your work?

Completing daily tasks used to be second nature, but now I have to slow down, proofread my work and make sure it’s accurate. UCSF is not just a place I come to work every day, it’s given me a sense of security, where I come to be my best and do my job without anyone criticizing my disability.

How has your disability shaped your life, and as a component of life, your work?

Having a stroke made me a stronger person and more compassionate with people who have disabilities just like me. By staying positive, I have grown to appreciate my work even more. I make sure every case I touch has my full and undivided attention, and I have come to think of my coworkers like family.

What advice would you have for others?

Stay strong, be positive, and never ever give up, because you are somebody that is important. Be a role model and encourage other people with disabilities that it’s not the end of the world, but rather a beginning of a new chapter in their lives.


Elise Tarrant, PT, DPT, Department of Physical Therapy

How would you describe your disability?

My disability is a hereditary, progressive visual impairment, which causes night blindness and tunnel vision.

How has your disability provided a perspective on your work?

Having a visual impairment improves my appreciation for the sense of touch a lot more in my field of work. Physical therapy is unique in that the sense of touch can be used to supplement visual observations; for example, swelling, muscle contractions, and movement patterns can be easily assessed by touch instead of on a purely visual basis.

How has your disability shaped your life, and as a component of life, your work?

I think it has provided me with a unique perspective to life and a true appreciation for friends and family.

What advice would you have for others?

Never give up. I think Walt Disney said it best, “If you can dream it, you can do it.”


Carol Music, Human Resources/transaction group

How would you describe your disability?

I have Cerebral Palsy (CP), a neurological disorder that affects my walking, balance, coordination and speech.

How has your disability provided a perspective on your work?

As long as I have the tools and accommodations needed, I am able to perform my job duties well and get my work done.

How has your disability shaped your life, and as a component of life, your work?

I’ve had to face many challenges and obstacles – whether it was in school, during a social activity, or at work. I have always heard “You can’t do that,” but I’ve met these challenges head on, and in the process proven people wrong. I apply the same determination to my work. I’m always looking for the best solution or accommodation to help me get something done.

What advice would you have for others?

Look past the disability. People automatically jump to the assumption that someone with a disability isn’t qualified, but if they would take the time to get to know that person’s abilities and strengths, they might find someone who is qualified, educated, experienced, and has a lot to offer.


Maureen McGrath, MSN, PNP, associate clinical professor, pediatric nurse practitioner

How would you describe your disability?

I don’t call my diabetes a disability. The fact is that when I was diagnosed 42 years ago it wasn’t classified as so. I remember when it was officially recognized as a disability.

How has your disability provided a perspective on your work?

My diabetes gives me the strength to fight for every patient in hope of easing their burden. I completely support my patients in the accommodations many of them need to be safe in school and work environments, especially since there are many misconceptions surrounding the management of diabetes.

How has your disability shaped your life, and as a component of life, your work?

My diabetes informs every aspect of my life. It has been the most demanding teacher one could ever ask for. It challenges me and has taught me deep and unrelenting compassion for those who are also challenged by illness, disease and trauma. My life would not have the passion or purpose it does without the challenge of diabetes.

What advice would you have for others?

My advice would be to use your challenge to help people, but don’t lose yourself in the process. Self-care is extremely important and can be a challenge to attend to when surrounded by so many in need.


Hugo Aguilar, School of Pharmacy student

How would you describe your disability?

I have a learning disability. Dyslexia is a spectrum of challenges with reading, writing and language processing.

How has your disability provided a perspective on your work?

Dyslexia has been a constant reminder that success does not happen overnight. It has conditioned me to be comfortable with the uncomfortable. Although I did not always acknowledge my learning disability, I have learned to accept that I am an uncommon individual. They say patience is a virtue, and dyslexia has certainly helped me apply patience to all things in my life.

How has your disability shaped your life, and as a component of life, your work?

My disability has been the crucible that has forged my strong work ethic. The constant pursuit of knowledge no matter how many hurdles I have to overcome is the path I have chosen. Pharmacy school has been the ultimate learning challenge for me, but the drive I have developed while living with a learning disability will help me overcome more obstacles.

What advice would you have for others?

Dyslexia has been a gift for me because it has always kept my dreamer mentality alive. My advice to others is to develop a mindset that meets adversity head-on, as this will improve your confidence and self-esteem.


Nathaniel Gleason, MD, associate professor & general internist

How would you describe your disability?

I am legally blind. My visual acuity is 20/400 – to read a sign most people see from 400 feet away, I need to be 20 feet away. It’s a recessive gene and causes an absence of cone cells on the retina. In addition to fine acuity, the cones also handle bright light and color vision. So I’m light sensitive and totally color blind, seeing just black, white and gray.
 
How has your disability provided a perspective on your work?

Not seeing well gives me a very stark vantage point on the nature of the work we do to deliver health care. The way we communicate electronically, the way we manage patient data, the software interfaces we use to practice medicine are frustrating for many physicians. For me they are so untenable that I can’t ignore it. When I am four inches away from the computer screen trying to locate a patient’s history, I’m constantly thinking about the ways we share and document information. This has drawn me to work on a range of system improvement efforts that have made for a very rich and rewarding role at UCSF.

How has your disability shaped your life, and as a component of life, your work?

While I pressed against the boundaries as a child, it is fair to say that disability shaped my life dramatically in that I believed my career options were limited. I started out working as a musician but found it wasn’t a terribly gratifying career path for me. As I explored the possibility of being a physician, I had to push back against a lot of assumptions and strongly discouraging responses. I’m proud to say that it was UCSF School of Medicine leadership who ultimately helped me to think through the challenges of medical training with a visual disability.
 
What advice would you have for others?

I encourage anyone with a disability who is considering a career in the health sciences, along with anyone with a role in admissions or recruitment and hiring of employees, to really think about the core functions of the role in question. Rather than simply picturing the way certain activities have traditionally been performed, be imaginative about how a person with a disability might meet the same goals and succeed in the role.


Louise Aronson, MD, MFA, professor of geriatrics

How would you describe your disability?

My disability is visual.

How has your disability provided a perspective on your work?

Many of my patients have disabilities. As my own worsened, I was reminded how understanding a hardship intellectually differs from understanding it experientially. I’d like to think I always was compassionate, but I suspect I ask slightly different questions now – ones that may not lead to treatment in the traditional sense but might, if I listen well, offer care and help people cope with their own discomforts and disabilities.

How has your disability shaped your life, and as a component of life, your work?

The help I get from my disability seems to arrive at a slant. Disability helps clarify what matters and who you can count on, in life and at work. Especially when your challenge is invisible, some people seem to have trouble believing it. Others are more generous; you mention it once and going forward, they include accommodations so everyone’s participation is not only possible, but unremarkable.

What advice would you have for others?

Don't assume that a person who looks fine doesn’t have a disability. Understand that finding workarounds can be stressful and very time consuming.


BJ Miller, MD, palliative care specialist

How would you describe your disability?

I usually just describe it dryly, like an inventory of parts. I say I’m a triple, or trilateral, amputee. If there’s more conversation to be had, then I might add how it happened: I lost both legs below the knees and my left arm below the elbow, from electrical burns.

How has your disability provided a perspective on your work?

It has helped me in two major ways: it helps me empathize with my patients and their families; and, by virtue of its obviousness, it helps form a trust with my patients. So, this disability provides a material as well as symbolic effect. Altogether, this wider lens helps me see things that I otherwise might have glided right past or not had access to. And it makes it easier to keep the patient and family’s wellbeing in mind; receiving care is probably the most valuable training an aspiring clinician can get.

How has your disability shaped your life, and as a component of life, your work?

I’d say it’s helped me see a bigger reality than I might have glimpsed otherwise, or maybe just sooner. One that includes valuable teachers like pain, failure, mystery, dependency, and ultimately death. And, lastly, now I understand being human as a creative act. I have a new reverence for adaptation and the human capacity for it.  

What advice would you have for others?

Work with what you’ve got. All of it.