One hand clutching the car door and the other gripping the seat, Dr Suresh Advani lifts himself from his wheelchair and slides into the passenger seat of his vehicle. “See, everything is easy if you work for it,” he says.
While the Medical Council of India (MCI), in its latest guidelines, has said people with certain disabilities cannot pursue MBBS, the 71-year-old medical oncologist, with 80 per cent locomotor disability, makes a case for allowing disabled students to chase a career in medicine.
Advani, who was awarded the Padma Bhushan in 2012, works for 14-15 hours daily, attending to at least 100 cancer patients, many of them from across the country.
“For a body like the MCI, the rules they make should be realistic. They should guide rather than obstruct,” he says. He says that instead of making disabled students ineligible, the MCI “must guide them on how they can pursue medical education”.
“If the government does not let a student try, how will they prove themselves. I do not support reservation, we don’t need any. And I also don’t support the idea of making disability an eligibility criteria,” he says.
When he was just eight years old, Advani suffered from polio, which left him wheelchair-bound. He completed his school education in Mumbai’s central suburb of Ghatkopar. When he was 18, he sat for the medical entrance exam. “Even then, there was discrimination. I was refused admission,” he says.
He was later granted admission after he presented his case to the state government. “But the dean of Grant Medical College said I would get no special concessions. I agreed,” he recalls.
Advani went on to pursue a Masters degree in general medicine from Grant Medical College, working for over 24 hours at a stretch during his residency. “All I needed was some help from friends when there were steps, or places where the wheelchair could not go,” he says.
When he was 28, he moved to London where he worked for three years. On his return, Advani worked at the Tata Memorial Hospital for 25 years, before starting his private practice. As a consultant at four hospitals, he begins work around 10 am and ends around midnight. Besides the Padma Bhushan, Advani was also awarded the Padma Shri and the Dr B C Roy national award from MCI.
Following the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act, 2016, which expanded the disability list from seven to 21, the MCI, on the directions of the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, set up a medical counselling committee to frame guidelines for medical students with disabilities. The guidelines, released in June, mandate that students with certain disabilities like autism, a range of hearing disabilities and locomotor disability beyond 70 per cent are ineligible to pursue medical education under disability quota.
Subsequently, in Maharashtra, of the 110 students who were admitted under the five per cent disability quota, eight were found to be ineligible. “The eight students found ineligible were not allowed to attend classes (which began on Thursday). We are only following MCI guidelines. The students have gone to court, but a decision is pending,” says Dr Pravin Shingare, director, Directorate of Medical Education and Research (DMER).
According to the MCI, a medical board, in four hospitals in Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata and Chennai, will provide eligibility certificate after a student with disability clears NEET.
“There is no need for a medical board. A person knows his potential. He must be allowed to challenge himself,” says Advani. “I am also not in support of reservation for disabled. If they clear NEET, they must be treated as equals.”
“We are going several steps back. In other fields, employment opportunities are opening up for the disabled. Several disabled students are entering IIT and IIM, then why not medicine,” says Anjali Agarwal, attached to the Delhi-based NGO Samarthyam, which works for the rights of the disabled.
“These are very new guidelines. We will have to initiate dialogue with the government,” says disability rights activist Nidhi Goyal.