Careers & Degrees in Healthcare: A Guide for Students with Disabilities

Learn about disability rights and disclosure, find key resources, and read how the right school and employer can make a huge difference.

In 2015, an estimated 19% of undergraduates in the United States reported having a disability. The Department of Education estimates that 41% of those students will go on to graduate (compared to 52% of students who reported not having a disability). And when you consider the unemployment rate for adults with disabilities is 50% higher than the rate for those without, it highlights the importance of resources, accommodations, and academic and professional support. It also underscores the need to expand scholarships and internships for people with disabilities, and to make sure every employer knows and follows the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

First and foremost, this guide is for everyone, whether you have a disability, know someone with a disability, or want to support those who may live and work with one. But it’s also for people with disabilities who may want to work in healthcare. Medical and health careers are some of the fastest-growing and highest-paying available today, and people with disabilities often have special skills and personal experiences that would benefit patients in a number of healthcare settings. Want to make a difference? Read on to learn more.

Challenges for Healthcare Students with Disabilities

While medical school and healthcare training programs strive to support learners with disabilities, some can fail to provide essential resources and create fully inclusive and accessible environments for disabled students. Additionally, the quality of support that learners with disabilities receive can vary between institutions. Below are some of the major challenges that students with disabilities may face when it comes to receiving the proper support and learning environment in their chosen healthcare or medical program.

Challenge: Shortage of learners with disabilities

Prospective healthcare and medical students, upon researching educational institutions to pursue training, may find that there are few students with disabilities in these programs. This lack of numbers can often be discouraging and make prospective students feel as if they would lack the necessary support, access to resources, and sense of community at the school.

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How to Improve: Attract, admit, and accommodate students with disabilities.

Schools that wish to increase the overall number of students with disabilities in their programs need to be vocal and explicit about their efforts to support diversity and inclusion. From promotional hard copy materials and online advertising efforts to campus events, a school needs to show how welcoming and accommodating they can be for students with disabilities. Studies have shown that educational institutions that prioritize inclusivity produce students with disabilities who are healthier, less likely to abuse drugs or alcohol, and have a lower risk of high blood pressure, cancer, heart disease, and diabetes.

Challenge: Lack of access to internships

Sometimes, students experience discrimination because of their disabilities when seeking out a summer or post-graduation internship. Often based on the employer’s misconceptions and false assumptions about the candidate, American Psychological Association (APA) reports that employers can focus on an applicant’s potential limitations instead of the qualifications and skills they bring to the table.

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How to Improve: Become advocates.

When it comes to their training and education to improve accessibility and equality, many students with disabilities must become their own advocates. It is important for students to understand their rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which prohibits the exclusion of people with disabilities in all aspects of public life. Signed into law in 1990, the ADA also requires employers to provide reasonable accommodations for prospective interns and employees. Additionally, the law prohibits discrimination in several other areas including public accommodations, access to state and local government programs or services, transportation, schools, and communications.

Challenge: Unwelcoming learning environments.

When students experience discrimination at school, they may be reluctant in the future to disclose their disabilities, ask for reasonable accommodations, or take advantage of the privileges or benefits that will help them learn at their fullest potential. This lack of disclosure can create a cycle that leads to less inclusionary practices at schools, poorer academic performance, and more students choosing not to disclose their disabilities over time.

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How to Improve: Creating a supportive climate.

Schools can create a more supportive climate by requiring staff and faculty to participate in professional development programs, designing learning areas that are accessible to everyone and promote participatory activities, and creating learning and guidance resources for students with disabilities. Support services must be actively advertised around the school or campus and online, alongside any other existing student services offered at the school.

Challenges for Healthcare Workers with Disabilities

Healthcare students with disabilities can take certain measures to make the college-to-career transition smoother. In order to do so, these learners need to be aware of some of the common challenges they may face in the professional world. Healthcare workers with disabilities may encounter challenges in the workplace with employers and coworkers, as well as with patients. Patients seeking treatment might unfairly expect their healthcare providers to be free from mental and physical disabilities. Unfortunately, not all patients will respond positively to having a provider with a disability. In the section below, we offer some advice for those who encounter discriminatory practices in the hiring process, non-ADA compliant workers or workplaces, and inequitable reactions or comments from their patients.

Challenge: Discrimination in the hiring process

One of the biggest hurdles for hopeful workers with disabilities is getting through the hiring process. Many individuals struggle with deciding whether or not to disclose their disabilities during the application process for fear of being seen as a less-qualified applicant. Others feel they are evaluated for a position based on their disability rather than their relevant experience and qualifications for the job.

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How to Improve: Job interview prep.

Students and young professionals need to spend time preparing for interviews for their internships or jobs. If possible, job seekers should take advantage of their school’s career center staff. They have experience in helping people with disabilities understand their rights and can offer helpful advice on when and how an applicant should disclose their disability. Career center staff members can also answer disability-related questions, often at a moment’s notice over the phone or online. Those without access to a career center may be able to obtain advice from online professional services such as Coleman Professional Services.

Challenge: Non-ADA compliant workplaces

Students and professionals in healthcare may encounter workplaces with less than ideal physical or social spaces for people with disabilities. Luckily, interns and professionals in healthcare are likely to encounter co-workers and administrators who are more sensitive to someone’s disability-related needs and reasonable accommodations than in other professions. Not all healthcare employment scenarios, however, will be ADA compliant.

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How to Improve: Educate employers on reasonable accommodation.

One of the best ways for workplaces to become fully ADA compliant is for all employees to receive educational materials or training on the law’s requirements and reasonable accommodations. Human resources professionals, managers, and supervisors must educate their workforce on inclusive practices. Additionally, leaders in any business or workplace must remain intolerant of any form of harassment or derogatory remarks regarding a disabled employee or accommodation request.

Challenge: Discriminatory Practices and Verbal Altercations

It is important for healthcare employees with disabilities to know that they are not alone in discriminatory situations with patients. If an employee encounters a patient that is disrespectful because of the employee’s disabilities, the employee should report the incident to their administrators, managers, or human resources department. In the moment, these employees must do their best to remain neutral, remove themselves from the situation immediately and address the issue with the appropriate co-worker.

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How to Improve.

Healthcare facilities can attempt to reduce these negative interactions between employees with disabilities, and between employees and patients, by clearly advertising with signage or literature that it is an inclusive, non-discriminatory space. Facilities can make use of outside nonprofit or governmental agencies that help healthcare institutions become more inclusive workplaces, including prominent ways of displaying the facility’s diverse and inclusive environment for all people who enter the space to see.

Finding a Career in Healthcare: Highlighting Your Abilities & Accommodating Your Disability

People with disabilities, as well as the people who employ them, should focus on the abilities they bring to the job as a prospective employee rather than the details of the disability itself. As stated in the ADA, employers must provide reasonable accommodations, including assistance or changes to a position or workplace environment, so an employee may carry out their jobs despite a disability. Here are some healthcare career ideas that compliment specific disabilities where reasonable accommodation could be easily made.

Mobility & Physical Disabilities

Median Salary
$67,080

Required Education
Certificate, Associate degree, or bachelor’s degree

Career Match

Sonography & Ultrasound Tech: Individuals mobility and physical disabilities can take advantage of this position, as it requires professionals to work with diagnostic equipment in a comfortable office setting. These professionals’ daily activities do not require a great deal of movement, lifting heavy items, or strenuous physical activity.

Head Injury & Brain Disabilities

Spinal Cord Disabilities

Vision Disabilities

Hearing Disabilities

Cognitive & Learning Disabilities

Psychological Disabilities

Invisible Disabilities

Understanding Your Rights: The Americans with Disabilities Act

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was created to provide protection to people with disabilities who often face widespread discrimination, segregation, and exclusion. Both job applicants and employees are protected by this law. The only common employment scenario in which the ADA may not protect individuals is when they are an independent contractor in the healthcare industry. Independent contractors in the healthcare industry include those workers who find employment through staffing or temporary agencies. The ADA is long and complex, but it is extremely important that every student with a disability be aware of the major protections they have when in the workplace. Some important points in the ADA to consider include:

Workers and job applicants with disabilities cannot be discriminated against.

Telecommunications devices for the deaf (TDD) and telephone relay services must be established.

Qualified applicants or employees can request a reasonable accommodation such as the modification of a work-related device, part-time work schedule, or the support of a reader or interpreter while on the job.

People with disabilities are protected in all areas of employment, including pay and benefits, time off and lay-offs, training, promotions, and firings.

Employers cannot ask job candidates about the nature or severity of their disability. They may only inquire if an applicant can perform job tasks with or without reasonable accommodation.

Applicants or job employees who use illegal drugs may not be protected by the ADA.

Disclosing & Discussing Your Disability

One of the biggest challenges workers with disabilities face is the decision to disclose and discuss their disability with their employer or potential employer. Disclosure of a disability is not required by law. Although some individuals may think that not disclosing will improve their likelihood of being hired or not being fired, there are many good reasons why individuals should disclose to their employer.

While everyone’s story is different, many individuals with disabilities find it helpful to disclose their disability to know exactly what accommodations, if any, would need to take place in order for them to be comfortable at work. Additionally, these accommodations may make life outside of work easier, whether assistance be needed in the form of scheduling adjustments, special transportation, and more.

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Reasons to Disclose Your Disability

1. Accommodation:

Prospective employees may choose to disclose information about their disability so they can obtain the necessary accommodations to carry out their job duties. These discussions can be helpful before a job candidate receives a job offer which helps them determine if the job is a good fit for them.

2. Benefits and privileges:

Depending on the workplace, disclosing information about one’s disability may allow them to take advantage of various benefits and privileges. Officially disclosing information about one’s disability also provides legal protection through the ADA.

3. Unusual circumstances:

It may also be beneficial to disclose information about one’s disability to help employers understand and anticipate unusual circumstances. For example, in some cases, due to a disability, some employees may need to miss work or follow a different weekly schedule than what is commonly expected.

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When to Disclose

It is absolutely up to the individual with the disability whether or not they report it. There is no “right time” to disclose this information, but many sources recommend doing so sooner than later. Individuals with visible disabilities may want to anticipate the concerns of their employers. During the first interview, applicants with disabilities can prepare answers to predictable questions regarding job responsibilities and how they would handle them. Applicants may wish to describe in detail or demonstrate how they would perform job functions in a given scenario. According to CareerOne stop, applicants with disabilities can show self-confidence by disclosing a disability before receiving a job offer. This shows that the employee is thoughtful about position and focuses the employer’s attention on the candidate’s ability to do the job, not the disability itself.

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Who to Disclose to

An employee’s disability and their requests for reasonable accommodations are private. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, it is best to disclose one’s disability on a need-to-know basis. Employees should only disclose their disability information to the individual(s) who can meet their reasonable accommodation needs. Furthermore, employees with disabilities need only to disclose information that pertain to work-related topics or concerns.

Inclusive & Accessible Schools & Workplaces

Many healthcare and academic facilities today strive to foster a culture of diversity and inclusion. Companies can benefit greatly from having a diverse workforce, and schools can benefit from a more diverse student body. In fact, a recent study showed that companies that prioritized disability inclusion outperformed those that didn’t, experiencing 30% higher economic profits. In these cases, facilities may focus on, celebrate, or officially recognize the diversity of their employees and students, from sexual orientations and ethnic backgrounds to religious affiliations and individuals’ personal attributes and experiences, including disabilities. Some places are more vocal about their inclusionary practices than others. Whether visible online or in-person, the list below contains some of the characteristics of today’s inclusive and accessible workplaces.

Accessibility features

While many healthcare-focused employers are likely to be more sensitive to these issues than others, prospective employees can consider the physical aspects of a workplace to determine if the employer prioritizes the needs of its disabled employees. While the physical space requirements may vary between disabilities, accessible workplaces typically have handicap parking spaces, curb ramps, appropriate signage, elevators, passenger loading zones, motor-assisted doors, wide doorways and pathways, and handicap accessible restrooms.

Accessible website

If a school’s or company’s website is easily accessible by people with disabilities, this may indicate that they prioritize inclusivity. All user-friendly websites often work well with common keyboard and mouse functions, as many assistive technologies for people with disabilities rely on keyboard navigation technology.

Assistive technology

Inclusive and accessible classrooms and workplaces may offer assistive technology options for students and employees. Common technology adjustments in healthcare and office scenarios include ergonomic keyboards, screen magnifiers, voice recognition software, microphone headsets, and screen readers. Depending on the employee’s specialty area and job duties, certain healthcare-related equipment may be available to accommodate their needs, as well.

Health benefits and flexible environments

Inclusive businesses are often accepting and supportive of individuals with disabilities who need to take health-related leave from work. Employers with flexible work schedule options help persons with disabilities to navigate challenging schedules with familial obligations, doctor’s appointments, therapy, and more. Additionally, some employees with disabilities need to take intermittent breaks or time off to take care of themselves. A flexible schedule allows them to do so without the stress of bending the rules or fear of losing their job.

Inclusion policy

Some businesses, companies, or facilities may have an explicit inclusion policy by which all employees must abide. In these scenarios, prospective employees with disabilities can proceed confidently knowing that their potential employer has taken at least this step toward creating a diverse and inclusive workplace environment.

Service animal guidelines

In most cases, the request for a service animal in a classroom or workplace is treated like any other request for reasonable accommodation. According to the Job Accommodation Network, a request for service animal is a request for the dean or employer to modify its potential “no animals” policy. Schools and businesses that take no issue with service animals may be highly inclusive.

Overall diversity

Prospective students and employees should look for any indication that a school, company, or facility actively tries to promote and embrace diversity. It may be possible to find out if a school or company has a history of diversity clubs, workshops, or seminars.

Resources for Healthcare Students with Disabilities

Today, the internet provides a wide variety of useful resources for healthcare students and professionals with disabilities. From government websites and academic reports to message boards and blogs, a simple online search will yield many opportunities to find the answers to your questions or advice regarding the experience of healthcare professionals with disabilities. In the section below, we offer resources for students and young professionals in this field who wish to find out more about interviewing for jobs and healthcare careers for students and professionals with disabilities.