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June 2004

Nursing students with disabilities

By Donna Maheady,
Author, Nursing Students with Disabilities Change the Course
Founder, Exceptional Nurse.

Christine's story

In December of my junior year of nursing school, I was in a car accident that left me as a T-four paraplegic. The girl driving the car was also a nursing student.

I was on a ventilator for about a month. After the first month, I wore a body vest for about six months. I couldn't do lifts or transfers. My mother did everything for me. I couldn't catheterize myself, because of the body vest. I remained in rehabilitation for about a month, at first on a striker frame, and after receiving the vest, for anther two weeks.

I taught myself to do everything. My thirteen year old brother taught me how to put my wheelchair in and out of my car. I said, "That's a good way! That's how I'll do it!" I teach others and my patients how to do it my way now.

I got out of the hospital in April and took a course in the summer - an elective course - at a local college. I returned to my nursing school, one year later, to complete my last semester. That's when I drove for the first time.

The administrators and faculty were involved with me right from the beginning, and they were very positive and accommodating. When they heard from my friends that I had said, "I'm not coming back", they actually came into the hospital and said, "You are coming back".

My school was small and very old. The campus was not very accessible. There was a ramp on the first floor that went up two stories. The doors were wide enough to get into one particular classroom and bathroom. That classroom was the only one I used. The school may have made an accommodation for me by putting my classes in that room.

Students and personnel had to walk from the parking lot to all of the buildings on campus. I was allowed to drive up to the building. They also had clickers for the doors I needed to use. People would constantly say, "Christine, why are you here? There are no people in wheelchairs here." I was evidently the first wheelchair student.

My family and friends were incredible. My dad has called me every single morning, since the day I was injured. He asks me, "What classes do you have? What's going on?" This has gone on for years now.

The semester I returned to nursing school, I took a clinical course in community health nursing. I was worried about it, because the instructors could send students all over the county to see patients. Fortunately, my instructor set it up so that all of my patients lived in rural communities and had ramps on their houses.

One of my patients had a pretty serious heart condition and used a wheelchair. He was a high level quadriplegic. The guy was about six feet two inches tall. His wife was only about five feet tall. I taught her how to do his turning, catheterizing, and the rest of his home program. I believe I was good for them and they were certainly good for me. They were very helpful, and my self-esteem was uplifted ... a positive experience.

I made my home visits with another nursing student, because I had a car, and she didn't. In my nursing program, the faculty always paired students. She learned so much about spinal injuries from me, she's an expert today. We drove hundreds and hundreds of miles in a rural area. I'd have to say to her, "I'm sorry you have to get out of the car, because I have to catheterize myself".

Many of my patients were surprised when I showed up at their house. The quadriplegic man knew I was going to be in a wheelchair, but most of my patients didn't appear to know and they were usually shocked. "Oh, my gosh. She's in a wheelchair!" some would say. Patients and their family members still say this, and they immediately question my ability, as though my having a physical disability has affected my mind. Every nurse's ability should be questioned, especially in a rural area and when a medication is being administered. However, a nurse wearing a nice little white dress and walking briskly into the house will not have her ability questioned. My being in a wheelchair seems to project to people that I'm not as smart as someone who doesn't use a wheelchair. If I were a smart nurse, I wouldn't be in a wheelchair!

I do know that I had incredible insight into my patients and they with me, because I was open with them. Each visit became a great experience for both of us. People with a disability seem to understand each other. As a nurse, I like to show people how to lose focus on their disability and problems and to believe they can do more than they expect.

I became more interested in nursing after my disability, not in the technical skills, but in acquiring information. I wasn't as interested in simply giving shots. The experiences of my accident and consequent hospitalization stimulated more awareness in the whole scope of nursing.

After I graduated from nursing school, I took the summer off and, then, went right into graduate school that fall. I interviewed at two prestigious universities, one Catholic. I didn't like the Catholic university, because of their attitude. The administrator said, "Come through the back door, because the office isn't accessible for a wheelchair". It was a dreadful experience.

I found the program I wanted at a university in a different state. The woman who ran the mental health nursing program - Debbie Patterson - became my mentor. When we met, she told me there would be no difficulties in their accommodating my disabilities. "There are no problems in this school. This is the place for you."

I did have one negative experience concerning my disability, during a mental health clinical experience. The instructor had a problem with my disability. I can't explain it. Even though she worked in the mental health field, she had trouble dealing with my disability and gave me low marks. I went to my faculty adviser, who said she thought this might happen. She asked, "Do you think she's struggling with your disability?"

My experiences with patients were interesting. I had to first break down the barriers. Since I was in a wheelchair and their counselor, I had the right to talk about myself. I worked with many adolescents with substance abuse problems. They couldn't get over that I was a nurse in a wheelchair. I told them about my accident and school experiences. "I'm doing fine. I acquired a spinal cord injury, when I was about your age, but life goes on." Once they knew about me, things would be all right and I could say, "Now, let's talk about you."

Children are interesting to work with also. They immediately want to know, "Can you walk? How did you get that injury? Hey, lady, how do you get that chair in the car? Do you sleep in that chair?"

After I graduated, I found work in mental health services as a counselor, in both an inpatient hospital and in a nursing home. I kept this job from August until February, and then moved, to be closer to a state-of-the-art rehabilitation center for therapy. I wanted to participate in the walking and bicycling programs. Although I went for that reason, I soon became the clinical coordinator of the program.

I've only had one administrator who experienced difficulty with my injury. Most have been positive about our relationships. I've had administrators who have said, "We're going upstate in two hours. Get your stuff. I'm putting you in the van and we're on our way." The attitude was "so what if you have a disability."

None of the facilities in which I've worked have had to make special accommodations for me. Since I worked in rehabilitation centers, they were more accessible than other places, but they still needed improvement. For example, if the bathroom in the spinal cord gym were not accessible for me, it would not be accessible for any of my patients. A fight for improvement was not for me, but for my patients.

Most of my professional experiences with nurses and staff members have been very positive. I have not had trouble regarding my disability. I do know that some people in the medical field have a hard time with nurses with a disability, though. They don't know if you're as smart or as hardworking or as motivated as someone who comes to work in a Liz Claiborne suit and fancy leather shoes. People still judge by outward appearances.

A few years ago, I met an attorney who needed a nurse to do some medical record reviews. I started working for him and, then, continued on with other attorneys. As an expert witness, it is very important how you come into the courtroom and dress. The jury is made up of lay people who judge your credibility by how you look and sound. Since I've had a strong background in education now - educating mostly health care professionals and patients - I can get my points across effectively, in terms of clinical information, but I speak like a lay person

If I had the opportunity to speak with a student with a disability considering a nursing career, I would say, "You definitely can do it." It depends on the structure of the program, however, and how narrow or unbending those involved with the program will be. Our greatest barriers are not physical; they're mental. Not every nurse needs to give shots. Not every nurse needs to use all ten fingers. Not every nurse needs to walk into a room. Not every nurse needs to practice in a hospital. I read medical records for attorneys. My knowledge base is strong and I use that knowledge, but I don't have to go to a hospital and turn a patient every morning. I'm still a nurse.

Editor's note

This story is an excerpt from the book "Nursing Students with Disabilities Change the Course" published in 2003 by Exceptional Parent Press, River Edge New Jersey, USA and available at and Donna Carol Maheady, Ed.D., ARNP is the book's author and founder of

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