A fate worse than death?

I attended a fascinating conference Wednesday at the Montreal Children's Hospital on ethics related to the care of children with disabilities.

One of the themes was cultural devaluing of children with disabilities – and how it can play out in decision-making about care, including whether to withdraw care from premature newborns with significant disability.

A neonatologist in the audience made the following comment.

“There is a feeling among my colleagues – an unspoken and probably unconscious bias – between physical and mental disability. Sometimes neonatologists think if you're not perfect mentally, you're better off dead. But when it comes to physical disability, they will go a long way with interventions.”

Neonatalogists care for newborns with complex, life-threatening problems related to prematurity, illness or congenital disability.

I think the stigma that intellectual disability is worse than physical disability is widespread, even within the disability community itself.

We can't know if what the doctor said about the pervasiveness of this attitude in neonatology is true. Perhaps she is ascribing her own bias to others. But it would certainly be shocking if specialists trained in the care of disabled newborns held such views.

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, neonatologists go to medical school for four years, then train as pediatrics residents for three years, then train for three more years in newborn intensive care. That’s a decade of learning.

Is it reasonable to expect that in this 10-year span the attitude that intellectual disability is worse than death would be challenged?

Neonatologists, as part of their training, should be required to have extensive interaction with families of children with intellectual and other disabilities, so they have a firsthand understanding of what life with these conditions is like. I hope we hear from a neonatologist about what kind of exposure to families of children with disabilities is included in their training.

At the Montreal conference we also heard about the Disability Paradox – that people with serious disabilities rate their lives as good or excellent while able-bodied people, particularly medical professionals, rate quality of life in people with disabilities as poor.

And we heard about research that shows that the way a health problem is framed influences the decision a family makes about treatment choices. How clinicians order information, the words they choose and even the tone of their voice can have a significant impact on how parents of children make medical decisions.

If a neonatologist were to believe that intellectual disability is a fate worse than death, how could that bias not seep through when conveying this diagnosis to families? Wouldn't that belief run contrary to communicating that a child with intellectual disability has value?

When a life hangs in the balance, I believe parents should receive the most complete information about intellectual disability, including the perspectives of families whose children live with it.