Can Disabled Nurses Work?
If you were deaf, blind and wheelchair-bound, could you still work as a nurse?
Karen McCulloh’s answer to this question may surprise you. According to the Chicago Tribune’s 2007 piece by Barbara Rose, McCulloh was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis after several years of professional work as a registered nurse. The disease impaired her hearing, vision and motor ability. To top it off, she experienced further problems with her vision, eventually losing the central vision in both eyes and periphery vision in her right eye.
McCulloh spent 3 months in a rehab facility and completed her BSN degree. Then she decided to return to work as a nurse. McCulloh had specialized in neurosurgery intensive care and community health care, and was highly qualified for the positions she applied for. However, when she showed up for interviews, she encountered shocked disbelief from prospective employers, some of whom refused to shake her outstretch hand.
McCulloh’s experience as a disabled job applicant in the 1990s was not unusual, and in many places today, is still a typical representation of how health care employers perceive disabled nurses. One study, according to Maria Ahmed’s 2006 article in Community Care, found that disabled nurses were considered to be capable of answering phones, but not of working on floors.
One-sixth of the American population is disabled. Among college graduates, only a little over 50% percent of disabled people are employed, compared with over 80% of their non-disabled peers. Although some disabled people may be under the false impression that they are unable to work, others who go on the job hunt with high hopes come up against stereotyped perceptions and flat refusals.
For example, some employers assume that disabled nurses will cost a lot to hire since employers are responsible for purchasing workplace accommodations. This stereotype is addressed by author Nancy Henderson Wurst, who Leslie Levine quotes in an October 2006 article called “The Nitty, Gritty on Hiring Disabled Workers.” Wurst explains, “The second most common reason employers don´t hire people with disabilities, according to the Rutgers study, is the fear of having to spend a lot of money on workplace accommodations. The interesting thing is that, in that same survey, of the respondents who said they have actually hired a person with a disability, three-quarters said no workplace changes at all were needed. When an accommodation was necessary, the average cost was under $500 total. That´s a pretty small price to pay for a loyal, dedicated worker.”
A document published by the Job Accommodation Network (JAN) addresses other stereotypes, pointing out that disabled nurses can easily lift and transfer patients with the use of transfer aids, team lifting or height adjustable examination tables. One-handed nurses can use one-hand syringes, one-hand IV poles and one-handed keyboards and keyboard software. Nurses in wheelchairs can maintain sterile techniques by wearing gloves over washed hands as they maneuver to an area, then removing their gloves.
Fortunately, perceptions and beliefs about disabled nurses are shifting, thanks in part to McCulloh’s groundbreaking work. She went on to found the National Organization of Nurses with Disabilities (NOND), which “promotes the full inclusion and acceptance of people with disabilities and chronic health conditions into nursing careers,” according to the organization’s website. In addition, NOND “educates and advocates for the full participation of nurses with disabilities in all aspects of nursing practice.”
The Chicago Tribune’s article on McCulloh closes with her inspiring answer to a question all dedicated nurse should ask themselves: “At one point, I had to say to myself, if I were deaf, blind and wheelchair-bound, could I still work? The answer is yes!”
And so can you! Nurses today have more options than ever before about what kind of work they do, where they do it, and when they work. Today’s nurses can be found everywhere from the bedside to the boardroom. Don’t let anything get in the way of your career goals! Before hesitating to start or advance a career in nursing, please take a moment or two to explore a few of the growing number of nursing specialty options available in order to help you learn more about nursing careers.
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