Employment Barriers for Nurses With Disabilities

Susan L. Duncan, RN


Topics in Advanced Practice Nursing eJournal. 2003;3(1) 


Dear Editor:

Thank you for the recent articles about employment barriers and other issues encountered by nurses who have disabilities.[1,2,3] I have had multiple sclerosis since 1978. Remaining active in the field of nursing has been a challenge and "another opportunity for growth." My opinion is that those challenges and opportunities can be substantially reduced through improved education of healthcare employers.

The authors were correct to say that the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) provides for employment of individuals with disabilities unless doing so creates undue hardship to the employer. However, employers may also deny employment for reasons of direct threats to safety to the employee or others and fundamental alterations. Too often, unsubstantiated fears of risk and liability prevail when employers consider job candidates who are known to have disabilities. Likewise, misunderstanding of the parameters of the law influences hiring decisions. Workplace accommodations are often not provided because of lack of familiarity with affordable options.

The author asked what happens to those [nursing employees with disabilities] who do not speak up and ask for special consideration and accommodation under the ADA. The purpose of the ADA is not to demand special consideration for those with disabilities, but to provide equal opportunity for access to employment, and to goods and services available to the public.

People who develop disabilities are not issued a handbook detailing everything they should know about their legal rights or how to best mitigate their needs. Although it is important for individuals to self-advocate, it is not unusual for a person to be unaware of the protections offered by the ADA and other laws. However, the ADA has been in place for 13 years; employers have the responsibility to be aware of the laws and understand how they affect their hiring and retention practices.

The rate of disability is approximately 1 in 5 persons. Yet many healthcare professionals deny knowing any coworkers with disabilities. Healthcare, like other professions, emphasizes a standard of ability that does not include physical or mental impairment. Many individuals do not disclose the presence or extent of a disability to avoid difficulties in hiring or in the workplace. It is past time that we consider, and value, the contributions of our competent, qualified colleagues who have disabilities. It is up to each of us, whether we are administrators or staff, with or without disabilities, to insist on nondiscriminatory hiring and retention practices.

Susan L. Duncan, RN
Duncan Consulting
Bellevue, Washington


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