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FAU’S Christine E. Lynn College of Nursing Professor Helps Disabled Nurses Rise to the Challenge

     BOCA RATON , FL (April 10, 2007) - Nurses who are disabled face major legal, social and emotional hurdles in the workplace. Even with the national nursing shortage and the passage of the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act, many highly experienced nurses are finding it difficult to find employment or to keep their jobs. They often encounter doubts from physicians, nursing peers and patients about whether they will be able to provide safe, competent care for patients.

      Some nurses with disabilities, such as hearing or vision loss, mobility or dexterity limitations, are overwhelmed by the struggle to earn a living and the fear of losing control over their lives. Others rise to the challenge and find a niche within their profession. They switch to areas that capitalize on their strengths, becoming nurse educators, consultants or moving into administrative roles.

     “The successful nurses are team players who decide they’re going to make it, no matter what,” said Donna Maheady, Ed.D., ARNP,adjunct professor at the Christine E. Lynn College of Nursing at FAU.   “Nurses with disabilities who succeed in the workplace do not say to their employers, I worked here for 10 years, and now you owe me another position. They often go back to school or start a consulting practice.”

      Maheady is the author of Nursing Students with Disabilities, winner of the 2004 American Journal of Nursing Book of the Year award, and founder of the web site Exceptional Maheady said that she launched the web site, which has been visited more than 100,000 times by nurses, students and administrators around the country, because there are few resources available to help disabled nurses.

      Donna Coad, an alumna of the BSN program at the Christine E. Lynn College of Nursing at Florida Atlantic University (FAU), was working as a staff nurse at a hospital when she began to experience symptoms, including muscle pain, palpitations and fatigue. Her doctors suspected that she had a non-specific collagen vascular disease and recommended that she cut her nursing shifts from 12 to 8 hours.

      Coad quickly regrouped and applied to work in her hospital’s float pool, in which nurses fill in wherever they’re needed. That experience gave her the opportunity to continue working in the profession and to find a job that would be a good fit for her needs. Today, Coad is working 12-hour shifts three days a week in a nursing position at the same hospital. When her health problems flare up, she trades hours with her co-workers.   “Getting through this has given me more fighting power than I’ve ever had before,” said Coad. “I’m a better nurse now because I can really empathize with my patients.”

      According to the U. S. Census Bureau, about 49.7 million Americans have a disability, which includes people of all ages. No one knows how many disabled nurses are in the workforce today. There are no studies documenting this, and some nurses, fearing discrimination or termination of their employment, do not disclose their disabilities.

      The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) mandates that employers make reasonable accommodations for otherwise qualified employees with disabilities, unless it can be demonstrated that providing such accommodations would result in undue financial or operational hardships. Many believe this provision is ambiguous, and employer determinations about what constitutes a reasonable accommodation vary widely. For example, if a nurse is working at a large hospital and has a back injury that prevents her from doing heavy lifting and strenuous physical activity, the employer may be able to provide special equipment so the employee can perform their job as appropriate. At a small community hospital with limited financial resources, that may not be an option.

       “However, the law does not require employers to create a new position that would be a better fit for a disabled nurse or to employ a nurse who isn’t performing well in her job,” said Maheady.

        Despite the workplace barriers, hopeful stories abound. Rosetta Jackson was working in a position at a hospital for nine months when she learned she had kidney disease and had to undergo dialysis. She couldn’t continue to work a full shift and had to leave her job.   Eventually, Jackson landed on her feet. She’s now working as an independent nurse consultant and is an online student in an undergraduate nursing program at FAU’s College of Nursing. “I tell other disabled nurses, find your niche and don’t give up, no matter how much rejection you experience,” said Jackson.


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