Health Care Careers for Workers with Disabilities

U.S. Soldiers who are wounded, ill or injured attend a Warrior Transition Brigade event at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C. (DoD photo/U.S. Navy PO1 Molly A. Burgess)
DoD photo/U.S. Navy PO1 Molly A. Burgess

People with disabilities can pursue successful careers in the health care 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 health care job.

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Employers Make Accommodations

If only because they must comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act, major health care 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 health care 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 health care organization than in a position where they directly provide health care. 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."

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Programs for Aspiring Health Care Workers

Some would-be health care 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 health care providers. "We look for nonstereotypical work," says Erin Riehle, co-director of the project. For example, "we have a woman with Down's syndrome who works in dental sterilization."

Other programs to train and recruit health care 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 health care 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 U.S. 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 health care field.

A few organizations offer help to workers with specific disabilities in certain health care occupations, including the Association of Medical Professionals with Hearing Losses and the National Organization of Nurses with Disabilities.

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