People with disabilities can pursue successful careers in the healthcare field, but it's not easy. The opportunities are out there, and so are the obstacles, from facilities and equipment that may need expensive accommodations to licensing requirements that necessarily put patient care and safety above all else.
It's often the organizations and resources job seekers with disabilities use that make all the difference when it comes to landing a healthcare job.
Employers Make Accommodations
If only because they must comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act, major healthcare employers -- from home-care agencies to hospitals -- are finding ways to integrate workers with disabilities into their workforces.
"If they're in a wheelchair, we assess their ability to perform essential job functions," says Brandon Melton, senior vice president of human resources at Lifespan, a 10,000-employee healthcare system in Providence, Rhode Island. "We don't assume that a person with a disability can't do something."
Still, candidates with disabilities are more likely to find employment in a support function for a healthcare organization than in a position where they directly provide healthcare. For example, Lifespan hired a deaf woman to run the records-keeping function in its human resources department.
One way to gauge an employer's commitment is to examine how they accommodate workers' disabilities. Highmark, a Blue Cross Blue Shield plan in Pittsburgh, dedicates money to accommodations. "We've centralized our accommodations budget -- that way, there's no hardship to the hiring manager" when an employee with a disability is brought on, says Tammie McNaughton, director of corporate workforce initiatives. "We also communicate to managers that disability is a part of diversity."
Programs for Aspiring Healthcare Workers
Some would-be healthcare workers enter the field by simply getting training and filling out job applications; others take advantage of programs specifically designed to recruit trainees with disabilities.
These programs can start as early as high school. Project Search at the Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center gives high school students with disabilities (most often cognitive disabilities) exposure to careers with healthcare providers. "We look for nonstereotypical work," says Erin Riehle, codirector of the project. For example, "we have a woman with Down's syndrome who works in dental sterilization."
Other programs to train and recruit healthcare workers have been started up by organizations that advocate for people with disabilities. "Lab jobs provide wonderful entry-level opportunities for people with disabilities," says Francine Tishman, executive director of Abilities, in Albertson, New York. The organization's laboratory assistant training program has collaborated with healthcare employers to educate more than 400 students with various disabilities. Companies like OSI Pharmaceuticals and Quest Diagnostics have hired 70 percent of graduates.
Other Resources for Workers with Disabilities
Federal and state governments can help people with disabilities open occupational doors. Check out the US Department of Labor's Office of Disability Employment Policy and the Department of Education's directory of state vocational rehabilitation agencies. These agencies sometimes work with employers and nonprofit organizations to bring people into the healthcare field.
A few organizations offer help to workers with specific disabilities in certain healthcare occupations, including the Association of Medical Professionals with Hearing Losses and the National Organization of Nurses with Disabilities.