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Nurses with Disabilities: Transforming Health Care for All

4 min readJuly, 11 2023

Nursing revolves around compassion, respect, and welcoming individuals with diverse abilities and backgrounds. That includes the 15% of the world population with disabilities. Nurses with disabilities bring new perspectives and demonstrate natural empathy for patient care because they’ve been patients themselves. And though disabled nurses face specific challenges, they have a unique sense of resilience and determination that make them valued members of the team.

Nurse leaders and colleagues must ensure that nurses with disabilities gain acceptance and support to reach their full potential. Explore how nurses with disabilities can dispel society’s misconceptions and be a vital part of your team.

Common Challenges Nurses with Disabilities Face

Disabled nurses encounter unique obstacles while performing their daily duties. These obstacles include physical barriers, societal attitudes, and biases. With appropriate accommodations, nurses with disabilities can perform essential job functions as well as their peers without disabilities. To mitigate these issues, organizations and leaders in the health care industry should embrace a social model of disability. This approach suggests that people are disabled due to societal structure rather than innate impairments. Challenges become increasingly apparent and solvable when viewed through this lens.

Let’s explore examples of disability discrimination in health care.

Inaccessible Equipment and Accommodations

Applying the social model of disability to equipment and environmental design reveals how many essential nursing tools are designed exclusively for able-bodied use. Obstacles include stethoscopes unusable by deaf or hard-of-hearing nurses, restroom stalls that nurses in wheelchairs can't enter, and inaccessible workstations. Disabled nurses may face ongoing difficulties finding accommodations for their needs within their organization’s financial means.

Harassment or Hostility From Peers

Nurses may try to hide a less-visible disability for fear of scrutiny or bullying over their competency as a practitioner. Others may feel obligated to overcompensate. Being subjected to derogatory comments or exclusion from social and professional activities can cause some to leave the profession altogether.

Subtle or Outright Discrimination

Prejudice isn't always straightforward. It could mean losing out on a promotion based on a disability. There may be assumptions about an individual’s ability to perform specific tasks or activities. Even when discrimination is nuanced, its impact on the receiving party — weakened morale, heightened stress level, and feelings of isolation — can be devastating.

How to Dismantle Ableism in the Nursing Field

Nurse leaders must acknowledge the challenges that nurses with disabilities face, dismantle ableism, and accept disability. Through education, training, and anti-discrimination policies, it’s up to organizations and their leaders to ensure a safe environment — physically and psychologically.

Beautiful young female nurse manager with a visible external cochlear implant is seated at her office desk, and looking at information on her handheld tablet.

Provide Reasonable Accommodations

Nurse managers should advocate for inclusive accommodations and benefits so disabled nurses can fully utilize their knowledge and skills to perform their duties. Inclusive practices you can implement include the following:

  • Consult with disabled nurses when purchasing new equipment and establish a budget for accessible devices. Suppose that you’re a nurse leader with a disabled staff member. Consider making transfer aid devices available and provide training so all nurses know how to use the equipment safely and efficiently.
  • Eliminate or reduce mandatory overtime. Long shifts can increase the likelihood of injuries.
  • Offer frequent breaks or time off to reduce physical and mental fatigue.
  • Learn more about how to accommodate health care workers under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Increase the Visibility of Disabled Nurses

Increasing the visibility of nurses with disabilities addresses stigmas and showcases what these caregivers can do when accommodated appropriately. Nurse managers can tackle biases in their organizations by working disability awareness into their cultural competency training, promoting the hiring of disabled nurses, and encouraging employee resource groups (ERG).

Professional organizations like the National Organization of Nurses with Disabilities (NOND) provide employees with educational, advocacy, and community resources. By engaging with this organization and other platforms like it, leaders can push for more jobs for disabled nurses.

Get Familiarized With the ADA and ADAAA

Up to one in four Americans lives with a disability. Nurse managers should understand the basic protections guaranteed by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Americans with Disabilities Act Amendments Act (ADAAA) in the likely event they oversee a disabled nurse. Educating themselves can help avoid discrimination, even unwittingly, against an employee.

Offer Alternative Opportunities

Managers can advocate for jobs for nurses with physical disabilities that align with their skill sets and needs. For example, nurses with reduced mobility can provide care through remote patient monitoring. This service can build strong patient-provider connections, with patients more likely to adhere to recommendations. Other opportunities in research, case management, and nursing education rely more on nurses’ training, critical thinking, and intelligence than their physical capability.

Nurses with disabilities have much to offer to the profession. Adaptability, perseverance, and commitment can inspire change in how society views those with disabilities. As a nurse leader, you must do your part in shaping the health care system to empower disabled nurses and build a more diverse, inclusive workplace.


Images sourced from Getty Images

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