Can this student with cerebral palsy thrive in pharmacy school?

June 7, 2016

Last month, Kelli Sem was granted conditional acceptance into the pharmacy school at North Dakota State University (NDSU). Her acceptance has gained widespread attention because Sem, 23, has cerebral palsy, uses a motorized wheelchair, and most-likely will need an assistant to act as her hands to meet certain laboratory requirements.

Kelli Sem

Last month, Kelli Sem was granted conditional acceptance into the pharmacy school at North Dakota State University (NDSU). Her acceptance has gained widespread attention because Sem, 23, has cerebral palsy, uses a motorized wheelchair, and most-likely will need an assistant to act as her hands to meet certain laboratory requirements.

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Before she even applied to pharmacy school, the North Dakota Board of Pharmacy unanimously agreed that Sem, with reasonable accommodations, would be able to complete pharmacy school's academic program and gain a license. The pharmacy board noted: "there are many roles in pharmacy encompassing mostly cognitive tasks, which would pose no barrier to Ms. Sem. Reasonable accommodations might also allow her to perform most pharmacy duties, with the help of registered pharmacy technicians."

NDSU cannot comment on the case, due to both privacy concerns and possible legal action. And it is unclear what accommodation NDSU will provide. Sem spoke exclusively to Drug Topics.

DT: When did you become interested in becoming a pharmacist and why?

Sem: As a junior in high school, we had to write a report on a career that interested us. When I came across pharmacy, it seemed like a perfect fit because technicians worked along side pharmacists to assist them with many tasks that would be physically difficult for me.

 

DT:Have you spoken with pharmacists and sought their opinion on your ability to perform the tasks of a pharmacist?

Sem: I've visited with many pharmacists in a variety of settings and locations. I have job shadowed in retail, consultative, and hospital positions. In addition, I met with the North Dakota Pharmacy Board in 2012 where its members collectively agreed that technologic advances have opened up opportunities for me.

DT: Do you believe that you could thrive in all pharmacist settings, or are some more conducive than others for a person with disabilities like yours?

Sem: Hospital settings would be challenging because of on-site compounding and sterilization requirements. But there are plenty of pharmaceutical jobs that require little or no compounding. I approach life the way my parents raised me. Even if I can't do tasks completely independently, I should contribute my talents wherever they can be used.

DT: Do you know of or are you aware of pharmacists with similar disabilities?

Sem: A young man who uses a wheelchair contacted me and informed me that he was in his last year of pharmacy school. Our diagnosis and needs aren't exactly the same, but we have similar accessibility requirements. I realized that even if I met another individual with cerebral palsy, the accommodations each of us would need might be totally different.

 

DT: NDSU recently adopted new technical standards that added physical requirements. Do you suspect these tougher standards were meant to discourage your application?

Sem: The motives that may or may not surround the adoption of the current technical standards don't matter. Their implication concerns me. To make lists of requirements such as vaccination, percussion, and sterile compounding as if they pertain to every place of occupation could also mean they'd miss out on someone like me, someone who has excellent written and oral communication skills, who can establish great rapport, and who can clearly convey and clarify information. These are also qualities that NDSU claims they want in a pharmacist.

DT: Since your story became public, what type of feedback have you received?

Sem: I've received far more support than criticism from family, friends, and even strangers. A few people have been opposed. I want them to know if I thought I would bring any sort of incompetency to this profession, I wouldn't be pursuing a degree in pharmacy. I believe my communication skills and advocacy skills will help others. I would like to thank those individuals who’ve given me support and encouragement. For them, I am full of appreciation.