A Disability Can’t Stop You from Conquering the Medical Field

By Tania Lavin, Market Research

Jill Gopal has achromatopsia, a non-correctable autosomal recessive congenital color vision disorder, which is accompanied with extreme sensitivity to light. Individuals with achromatopsia are legally blind. Jill graduated from Boston University, received her masters degree from Northeastern University and now works as a respiratory therapist in Los Angeles. Jill discussed her disability, job-seeking experiences and the necessity to be her own advocate in a phone interview with Tania Lavin on February 2013.

What is your educational background?

I left suburban Pennsylvania to attend Boston University. Boston has an excellent public transit system, so I was actually able to be on my own for once. After receiving my undergraduate degree in their physical therapy program, I ended up taking two years off to pursue massage therapy and the culinary arts. I worked as a massage therapist while I finished my culinary arts certification then had a brief, one-month stint in culinary. If my vision were better, I know I would be a physician. While in a Boston bookstore, I stumbled on the next best thing, a career in respiratory therapy. As it turned out, I was able to start a masters program in Boston two weeks later.

What was it like to be a student with a disability?

Graduate school was a welcoming environment. Not so much at Boston University. It was really up to me to talk to professors. I asked the advice of the campus disability officer and was basically told, it was up to me. One professor went out of their way to allow me to do the exams on my own and give me unlimited time.

How have your employers treated you?

At my first job, nobody seemed to care much. It wasn’t until my second position at a 900 bed Virginia hospital that my disability was made an issue. The doctors and nurses in the hospital were known to make comments. I worked the night shift at this hospital and needed to get to work via public transit and a shuttle. The shuttle only ran on weekdays and I was supposed to work every third weekend. I spoke with HR about not being able to get to work on weekends and HR said “this is not our problem.” Equal opportunity employment? Ha! Luckily, my coworkers picked me up and took me back to the train. I went through the year dealing with it. Before I left, the whole hospital had to take an awareness course on how to take care of deaf patients because they were engaged in a massive lawsuit.

How and when do you disclose your disability to employers?

I felt comfortable disclosing my disability to my employer in Virginia, because they already wanted to hire me prior to the interview due to an excellent reference. The interview was merely a formality. In my current job, I didn’t tell the people hiring me. I wear medical, tinted sunglasses inside because hospitals are so bright but I purposefully didn’t wear them during my interview. In California, the job market in my career is tight and I only secured an interview because my husband, a physician at the hospital, sent a letter to the respiratory department. My boss has since found out about my disability, but is okay with it. There isn’t much in my job where vision could be a problem. It would be if I worked in the NICU but I know myself and what I can and cannot do.

What resources or advocacy groups have you used?

In Boston, I went to the Department for the Blind to get set up with public transit. They gave me the assistance I needed and secured me a discounted rate. I tried to do the same when I moved to Virginia. I thought it would be great if someone could help me. Unfortunately, the office was located in the middle of nowhere, so I couldn’t even attempt to get there. In LA, there is a huge community for the blind and some carry white canes to identify themselves to others, but there are only two or three associations to service them. I’ve tried three times to reach them, but nobody got back to me. Luckily, LA’s public transit system is really good. I take an eight minute bus ride to work. In contrast, my husband commutes to an outpatient site at the same hospital, three miles farther, by car in 30 minutes. Supposedly, there is assistance out there but it is hard to get in touch.

What advice would you give to other workers with a disability?

People only have to disclose as much as necessary. Luckily, I’ve never needed to say my disability could hinder my job. I know the laws and they can’t discriminate against me. Know your limits, but be a self-promoter. You really have to put yourself out there. You have to be your own advocate. Show you’re strong enough to do what you say you can. I’m in the lucky position where I know a lot of people in my field and I can depend on a position, where my husband gets a job. I don’t know where I’d be if I didn’t have that luxury.