Changing the Stereotype: A Call for Greater Inclusion of Nursing Students with Disabilities

Nursing Student Alyssa Macleod in her scrubs

UNLVSON undergraduate student Alyssa Macleod (Photo Credit: Lonnie Timmons III/UNLV Photo Services)

Feb. 4, 2021

By Alyssa Macleod (UNLV SON Undergraduate Student)

When life gets hard, you fight back harder. When I was born, my parents were told I would never walk, never talk and I would be in a wheelchair for life. Now I am a Level 3 UNLV nursing student trying to help others in similar roles have their voices heard. I’ve been called a hero, a role model-you name it, and I am none of those things. I am someone who just wants to make the world a little easier for the children of today.

GROWING UP RESILIENT

I had a seizure shortly after I was born. I was 2 months early weighing just over 4 pounds. I did not take my first steps until I was 3 years old. It is thanks to a selective dorsal rhizotomy [SDR] (a surgery that involved opening my spine and burning some of the nerves leading to my legs) and countless hours of physiotherapy that I am able to walk today. I was born with Cerebral Palsy (CP), the most common motor disability in childhood, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It affects my ability to move and maintain balance. While there are different types of CP, the type I have only affects my legs. With the help of Shriners Hospitals for Children in Montreal, Canada, and with many surgeries and Botox treatments in my legs, I defied the odds, and I am proud to say I now walk unassisted, albeit a little differently than everyone else. I have bad days when it’s hard, and my legs don’t want to work. On my bad days when I’m really stiff and falling over nothing, these thoughts run through my head: “Why am I here?”, “What am I supposed to do?”, “Why is this so hard sometimes”? Then I snap out of it and realize how far I’ve come (which isn’t easy for me to do either).

LEARNING TO SUPPORT OTHERS

Being a disability advocate started in 2014 when I was crowned Miss Canada International. I chose the platform, “Power of Perseverance” (inspiring people with disabilities to reach their dreams). I travelled all over Canada and the USA doing speaking engagements and attending special events as well as visiting hospitals and nursing homes among many others for 15 months. After I was crowned Miss Canada and CP Ambassador, I was asked to talk to parents and young kids with CP. That’s when I first thought maybe I’m supposed to be the light at the end of the tunnel for others. Maybe I’m meant to show them that CP isn’t the end of the world (although it really does suck some days). I still haven’t found my true purpose yet, but I think I’m close.

After spending 20 years as a Shriners patient, I knew I wanted a career in healthcare when I grew up. The nurses and doctors at Shriners took such excellent care of me after all my surgeries and treatments; they became my second family. I loved going to my appointments (no one says that, right?). The hospital staff made such an impact on me, and I knew I wanted to give back to a community that has given me so much. But it didn’t come easy.

After my reign as Miss Canada ended, I went to medical school in the Caribbean. There, I felt like I didn’t belong. I later found out the school was changing my passing grades to failing grades and forcing me out because they didn’t like that I was disabled. After fighting a losing battle, I returned home to Canada and decided to apply to nursing. I applied twice and was not accepted. The director of the nursing program told me she did not believe I would be able to perform the required duties because of my CP. That’s when I turned to UNLV.

AMPLIFYING MY FOCUS AND INNER STRENGTH

I applied to UNLV after reading reviews about how great their nursing program was. I was very transparent about my CP, and I got accepted right away, no questions or discrimination. The SON has been the most supportive and amazing people I’ve met in my education journey, and I mean that wholeheartedly. I’ve been fully accepted here, and it feels amazing to have so many faculty and classmates in my corner.

For my Community health class, we had to record a video discussing an issue we would like the Nevada State Board of Nursing to address. I chose the topic of greater inclusion of nursing students with disabilities. Due to my experience of being rejected, I felt like the myths of disabilities needed to be addressed. One myth is that since CP affects the brain, many people also believe that people with the disability are not as intelligent. That video evolved into a National Student Nurses Association resolution on the same topic, asking for greater inclusion. A resolution is a motion that is adopted by a deliberative body and can potentially be written into regulation. In my experience, many people think having CP automatically means you are in a wheelchair and are then labeled by society as being less than even if you are not in a wheelchair.

The truth is, I can do what everyone else can do. I may do it a little differently and some things may take me a little longer to accomplish but I will do it; all I need is a chance to show you. In my time doing clinical rotations, I have not seen another physically disabled nurse on the floor. I wrote the resolution to bring attention to how disabilities are perceived and to make progress towards changing it. Nurses with a disability have so much to offer, and we can relate on to patients in unique ways due to shared experiences. We deserve a chance. We should not be scared to go after our dreams simply because we are afraid of being rejected or being the first disabled nurse on a unit. BE THE FIRST. CHANGE THE STEREOTYPE.

UNLV SON has supported and helped me in more ways I can count. They gave me that chance, and it’s my pleasure to help them gain recognition for all they’ve done. It took me a long time to find my place but I’m so happy I didn’t give up.  A disability doesn’t define you; you define the disability!

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