Supporting Nurses and Nursing Students with Disabilities

Supporting Nurses and Nursing Students with Disabilities

Supporting Nurses and Nursing Students with Disabilities

Leslie Neal-Boylan
Beth Marks
Karen J. McCulloh

Nursing students and nurses with disabilities face discrimination and bias both in schools of nursing and in the workplace. This can be overt or subtle and can take many forms. In March 2014, nurses spoke up on behalf of, and with, nurses with disabilities at a policy roundtable in Washington, DC, cosponsored by the National Organization of Nurses with Disabilities (NOND) and the Department of Labor, Office of Disability Employment Policy. Representatives from several federal agencies and national nursing organizations attended the meeting, where a plan of action was developed through the collaboration of federal agencies, nursing and disability rights organizations, nurse educators, researchers, clinicians, and nurses with disabilities.

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Much discussion focused on how to increase awareness within nursing education that students with disabilities are capable of becoming excellent nurses, whether or not they can perform every skill required of a nurse using the techniques “we’ve always used.” According to findings of Ashcroft and Lutfiyya published in Nurse Education Today in 2013, nursing educators generally thought that students with disabilities belong in nursing programs but expressed concerns about how best to support them in situations ranging from timed examinations to clinical assignments, especially in instances when students did not disclose that they had a disability. Other studies support this finding, and the literature is replete with letters and articles authored by disabled nurses who have experienced discrimination in their work settings.

An added concern is that the nursing workforce is aging. Older workers are more likely to have chronic health conditions and disabilities. In order to retain the wealth of skills and knowledge of mature nurses, employers will need to provide those with disabilities reasonable accommodations, as stipulated by the Americans with Disabilities Act Amendments Act of 2008. NOND advises nurses with disabilities to become familiar with their rights, in case they ever need to negotiate with employers to obtain accommodations.

It is also vital that students and nurses with disabilities identify a mentor or adviser in the school or workplace to help them advocate for their rights. Technologic advances can improve the experience of students with disabilities and ease the entry or reentry of nurses into the workforce. Nurse educators and nurses in general must put aside their biases about what a nurse with a disability can or cannot do and be open to alternative ways of performing traditional nursing skills. Ferguson and colleagues, writing in Nurse Management in 2009, have proposed that nurses be given sensitivity and diversity awareness training and that managers take a proactive approach to integrating nursing students and nurses with disabilities into the work setting.

Access to education and employment for students and nurses with disabilities requires change on four fronts: policy, education, stakeholder attitudes, and practice. Achieving changes on all of these fronts is critical, because, as a number of commentators have pointed out, health professionals with disabilities have the potential to transform their disciplines and practice through the provision of culturally relevant care. Culturally relevant care, like linguistically relevant care, enhances communication, increases consumer involvement and satisfaction, and leads to better health outcomes.

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