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For National Disability Employment Awareness Month, Experts Share Insights on Returning to Work After Spinal Cord and Brain Injury Rehabilitation

Employment of people with disabilities lags, but progress is under way thanks to advocacy efforts and vocational rehabilitation programs.

So much has improved over the past few decades for Americans with disabilities. In general, the public has become more aware that people with disabilities deserve equal opportunities in society and workplaces. Sidewalks, buildings, even houses have become easier to navigate. Public transportation, including mass transit and airlines, have become more accommodating.

But the vast majority of people with disabilities still aren’t employed. Fortunately, that is changing. In the past year, the employment-to-population ratio (the ratio of people working compared to the total population) for people with disabilities has risen to nearly 30 percent (29.5), a rate that has been climbing during the past 17 months. But when measured against the overall number of 73.6 percent of Americans who are employed, it’s clear there’s still a lot to do.

“The last frontier is employment of people with disabilities,” says Mark Johnson, director of advocacy at Shepherd Center. “The majority of people with disabilities still don’t work, and that translates into poverty and related issues.”

Much of the problem relates to disincentives for people with disabilities to work, such as earning too much to qualify for disability benefits, but too little to make it without them. Issues include the challenges of being newly disabled and a lack of understanding of the rights of people with disabilities. Fortunately, resources and strategies are available to help people with disabilities return to their pre-injury jobs or find a new career.

“When I started in this field, in the 1980s, there were only a few employed people with quadriplegia, for example,” says Debbie Page, MS, LPC, CCM, a vocational case manager at Shepherd Center. “The expectation was that they wouldn’t go back to work. But now, there are more rehabilitation programs, people are more mobile, they have better healthcare and they are living longer. There’s the internet, voice-activated speech software and so many other affordable accommodations people can use to get back to work.”

If a person with a disability needs to switch professions, every state has federally funded vocational programs to help them assess the jobs that are in demand and in which they could be successful . Plus, vocational rehabilitation professionals can help clients obtain the workplace accommodations and tools they need. Those include assistance with transportation and assistive technology.

Many employers want to do whatever they can to retain valuable employees.

“Employers are often happy to have the help,” Page says. “Many of them just don’t know what they need to do.”

As with most things, education is the first step, and people with disabilities need to educate themselves.

“Get assistance, even if you don’t think you need it,” Page adds.

Shepherd Center provides assistance from vocational rehabilitation case managers. They assist clients in returning to their previous jobs, pursuing new employment options or preparing them for employment in the future. Case managers make recommendations and help implement workplace accommodations to support the client’s independence and autonomy. Additionally, case managers educate employers and help manage clients’ disability benefits whether it’s through Social Security or their own long term disability plans.

“Usually, when I call an employer and tell them I’m coordinating the employee’s return to work, they’re delighted,” Page explains. “When people try to coordinate it for themselves, it’s well-intentioned, but they often fail.”

“Unfortunately, a lot of people put barriers in front of themselves when there are resources out there, like Shepherd Center, which can help you,” says Zachary Bradley, a peer support liaison at Shepherd Center.

Bradley knows firsthand what it’s like to have to switch careers and get help navigating the system.

He sustained a spinal cord injury after a tree fell on his car following his first year at Clayton State University, where he was attending on a basketball scholarship. The accident caused him to re-evaluate his plans to become a physical therapist, so he switched paths. In summer 2017, he completed a master’s degree in clinical rehabilitation counseling at Georgia State University.

“So much of going back to work involves breaking down the preconceived notions of yourself or others,” Johnson explains.

You may have a gap in your resumé during which you were undergoing treatment, rehabilitation or something else. It’s important to let your employer or potential employer know what this is, experts advise.

Always bring up and allay their concerns, even if you don’t know if they have any,” Page says. “And do it with confidence. Nothing sells like confidence.”

Most importantly, just get out there, apply and interview. Most people don’t get the first job they apply for, nor the first one they interview for.

There are job fairs for people with disabilities,” Johnson says. “But, I encourage people to just go to job fairs in general. There’s no substitute for networking. It makes you more than a resumé in a pile or a number.”

And if you don’t get the job, ask the human resources office for feedback. It can help you with your next job interview.

“We put a lot of barriers in front of ourselves,” Bradley says. “A lot of times, it’s internal, saying to ourselves, ‘I’ll never be able to do that again.’ It’s important that you don’t close the door too soon. Of course, there are jobs that are physically demanding, that it’s difficult to return to, but so often with just a little bit of help, you can return to your job. And there are always options to go into a new career path.”

Read more here on two patients who successfully returned to work.

Read more here on how Shepherd Center helps patients returning to work.

Written by David Terraso

About Shepherd Center

Shepherd Center provides world-class clinical care, research, and family support for people experiencing the most complex conditions, including spinal cord and brain injuries, multi-trauma, traumatic amputations, stroke, multiple sclerosis, and pain. An elite center recognized as both Spinal Cord Injury and Traumatic Brain Injury Model Systems, Shepherd Center is ranked by U.S. News as one of the nation’s top hospitals for rehabilitation. Shepherd Center treats thousands of patients annually with unmatched expertise and unwavering compassion to help them begin again.