Returning to Work After Injury
October is National Disability Employment Awareness Month.
Fewer than three weeks after Ryan Gibson sustained a complete C-7 spinal cord injury from diving into a lake in 2015, Debbie Page, MS, LPC, CCM, vocational rehabilitation case manager at Shepherd Center, visited him to talk about going back to work.
“I was still thinking about the injury and the recovery process – I hadn’t thought about employment much,” says Ryan, then a 25-year-old auto technician in suburban Atlanta. “But sometimes it takes an outside eye to shake you and say, ‘By the way, you’ve still got to do this.’”
Ryan’s employer visited him at Shepherd, where Ryan completed both inpatient and outpatient rehabilitation over five months. Along with Page, Ryan communicated with his boss throughout, keeping him posted on the timeline of his recovery, as well as updating him on duties of the job that might need to modified or delegated completely.
Six months after the accident, Ryan returned to work. Ryan, who uses a wheelchair for mobility, transitioned from the service department to sales in the parts department. He is able to complete his job with a few accommodations.
“You have to reach out and talk, tell your employer what you’re thinking,” Ryan says. “I realized that no employer knows what shape you’re in or what you’re thinking unless you tell them.”
While Ryan’s return to work was fairly seamless, not everyone has that experience. That’s why the U.S. Department of Labor designates each October National Disability Employment Awareness Month.
While the employment-to-population ratio – the ratio of people working compared to the total population – for people with disabilities has risen to about 30 percent, that’s still well below the 73.6 percent of all Americans who are employed.
Shepherd Center’s vocational rehabilitation program, which is available to patients because of the generous support of donors, aims to change that. Of the 468 patients Shepherd Center’s vocational rehabilitation program served during the last fiscal year, 90 returned to work or school, and 33 were volunteering, which many patients do to build physical and cognitive endurance to work again. A total of 289 were referred to state vocational rehabilitation programs, which assist with job training, adaptive technology and other benefits.
“Everyone who’s able to go back to their jobs, if the position remains available, does return to work,” Page says. “Sometimes the recovery takes too long and the employer is forced to fill the position.”
April Ross was a Fulton County, Georgia, assistant district attorney when she sustained a spinal cord injury in 2014 after being shot by her estranged husband. Paralyzed from the chest down, she returned to the district attorney’s office about a year and a half later.
“I was concerned with how soon I’d get back to work for reasons more than money,” Ross says. “I’m used to a life where I’m doing something.”
With the help of Shepherd’s vocational rehabilitation services, Ross navigated the insurance and government agencies she needed to help her return. Ross also became fluent at Shepherd with adaptive technologies, such as dictation software, that she now uses in her office.
For many people with disabilities, focusing on what you can do is more important than what you can’t do.
Kimiko Cheeley grew up with that lesson: both her parents are legally blind.
Kimiko sustained a severe anoxic brain injury on Dec. 26, 2017, from an out-of-hospital cardiac arrest caused when a 500-pound tractor tire fell on her. She transferred to Shepherd two weeks later from Navicent Health, in Macon, Georgia, where she worked as a care coordinator.
Three weeks later, she returned to Macon to continue rehabilitation closer to her husband and 10-year-old son. She went back to work in April.
Kimiko began by working three hours a day, two days a week, to build up her strength. The hospital slowed the doors in her work area to give her more time to get through them. To help with whatever memory challenges she still had, she plastered her computer with sticky notes of phone calls she needed to make and patients she needed to see.
She now works 30 hours a week.
“I don’t take no for an answer,” Kimiko says. “My parents always taught us never to let anything hinder you.”
Ryan, April and Kimiko all had engaged, proactive employers who educated themselves on their employees’ disabilities – a crucial next step in getting more people with disabilities employed.
Mark Johnson, director of advocacy at Shepherd, ticks off medical, technological and legislative advances over the past few decades for people with disabilities. But he says employment remains “the last frontier.”
“Not working translates into poverty,” Johnson says. “The heavy lift now is employers. Do you want us in your work force or don’t you?
“It’s a constant evolution,” Johnson adds. “Employers have to go beyond awareness, that’s the critical step. My advice: take it personally and hire someone.”
Written by Drew Jubera
Shepherd Center, located in Atlanta, Georgia, is a private, not-for-profit hospital specializing in medical treatment, research and rehabilitation for people with spinal cord injury, brain injury, multiple sclerosis, spine and chronic pain, and other neuromuscular conditions. Founded in 1975, Shepherd Center is ranked by U.S. News & World Report among the top 10 rehabilitation hospitals in the nation. In its more than four decades, Shepherd Center has grown from a six-bed rehabilitation unit to a world-renowned, 152-bed hospital that treats more than 900 inpatients, 575 day program patients and more than 7,100 outpatients each year.