Fearing that you may not being able to work again, or have anxiety about future employment? These are common concerns among wheelchair users, and while this is understandable given the loss of mobility that you have experienced, it is worth reminding yourself that a large proportion of wheelchair users successfully reintegrate into the workplace1,2. Wheelchair users form a valuable asset to those they work with that is no different from anyone else. Similarly, your job hunting process will not be all that different from a non-wheelchair user, but you’ll still need to bear in mind some additional considerations when re-entering the job market.
Engaging with work that is well-suited to your lifestyle and unique circumstances can be very rewarding, both financially and in terms of overall life satisfaction. For Kelly, a Bard patient and devoted primary school teacher, returning to work was a priority, and key to her acceptance of her condition and rebuilding of her life. So with Kelly’s insights, here is our guide to how you can get back into the working world as a wheelchair user.
Deciding to work again
For many, the thought of going back to the 9-5 can seem daunting, a feeling that certainly resonated with Kelly, “I never thought I’d go back to working full time. I thought I’d be too tired, or that there wouldn’t be enough hours in the day to do everything, but like anything the more you do it, the more adapted you become”. To take your first steps, start by taking time to identify your unique skills and strengths, your experience, and what you enjoy. In parallel with this, you’ll want to do some thinking about your lifestyle and circumstances. Think about what type of work suits you, and reflect on your physical and mental abilities. Be realistic when setting your job goals, and consider your mobility and equipment, and access to assistance if you need it at work: these can often form barriers to wheelchair users being able to re-enter the workforce3. Chatting to your partner, family or friends can be helpful in defining your new job. A formal functional assessment with an occupational therapist may also be of considerable value in establishing your abilities and ideal work environment. Occupational therapists will consider you and your abilities, your environment, and occupation in their assessment4.
Just like anyone else looking for a job, start by building a great C.V., and gathering some good reference letters. Then it’s time to explore what’s out there. If you have the right background and skillset, explore working for yourself from home . Get in contact with a Work Coach5, who can help look into viable employment options for you. Not sure if you have the funds? You can also look into the government’s New Enterprise Allowance6 scheme which gives can give you access to resources, advice, and funding guidance.
If you’re not in the position, or are not inclined to become self-employed, start trawling the job boards, online job searches, and ringing temp agencies. There are also very helpful hiring agencies specifically for people with disabilities, such as Even Break7 and Disability Jobsite8. You need not necessarily restrict yourself to disability related positions, remember that it is unlawful to discriminate against employees with disabilities in the workplace and some companies boast well-designed, disability-friendly workspaces along with onsite medical facilities. You may find yourself interviewing with other people in wheelchairs, or as the only candidate in a wheelchair. Regardless, the same principles of good interviewing still hold true. Have a copy of your C.V. handy, be neatly dressed, punctual, and positive. A proper interview will deal with your abilities and whether you can meet the basic demands of the job, not on the medical details of your disability.
Look out for the ‘positive about disabled people’ symbol8 when you’re searching for your new position. This symbol has two ticks, and should appear on adverts and application forms from employers who are committed to employing disabled people. If you meet the basic requirements for that role, it means you’re guaranteed an interview.
Work environments that are optimally designed for those who use them enhance job satisfaction and performance. The same is true for wheelchair users, and ergonomic adjustments to the workstation are usually necessary so that everything is easily accessible and practical to handle from your wheelchair10. Check the parking, and common areas to ensure that your specific needs are met. In addition, also examine the toilet facilities to ensure that they are wheelchair accessible, and provide a hygienic place where you can catheterise in a safe, clean, and comfortable way. You might also want to discuss special adaptations to the workspace, as well as sick leave for medical appointments with your employer.
Going back to your previous job
You may be in the position to return to your former post, with certain adaptations. Have honest discussions with your boss and colleagues about simple changes that can be made that would make it easier for you to go about your duties. This transparency is what made Kelly’s transition very simple, “ Obviously there are annoying things, like getting up the stairs to get stationary, but actually I’ve gone back to pretty much how it was...it was so much better than I thought it would be”. In some cases, it may be necessary to revise your responsibilities and your focus, or modify your schedule. Employers are bound under the Reasonable Adjustments for Disabled Workers act to accommodate your needs, so don’t be afraid to speak out and request directly10.
The advice of an occupational therapist is well worth it if you are considering returning to work as a wheelchair user. The therapist will devise a plan for reintegrating you back into your job, and will be able to recommend a number of ergonomic adjustments, and possibly assistive devices, to your workspace based on your mobility, and your daily activities4,10.
By liaising with your employer, team, and occupational therapist, you can ensure an easy transition into your new working life. For more information and advice, get in touch to speak to one of our expert nurses, or browse our Learn section.
1 Ferdiana A, Post MW, de Groot S, Bültmann U, van der Klink JJ.
Predictors of return to work 5 years after discharge for wheelchairdependent individuals with spinal cord injury. J Rehabil Med. 2014 Nov;46(10):98490.
J Rehabil Med. 2014 Nov;46(10):98490.
2 van Velzen JM, van Leeuwen CM, de Groot S, van der Woude LH, Faber WX, Post MW.
Return to work five years after spinal cord injury inpatient rehabilitation: is it related to wheelchair capacity at discharge?
J Rehabil Med. 2012 Jan;44(1):739.
3 Silver J, Ljungberg I, Libin A, Groah S.
Barriers for individuals with spinal cord injury returning to the community: a preliminary classification.
July 2012, 5(3): 190196
4 Brown C. Functional assessment and intervention in occupational therapy.
Psychiatr Rehabil J. 2009 Winter;32(3):16270
5 Disability Employment Advisors Accessed: 8 June 2016 http://www.jobcentreguide.co.uk/jobcentreplusguide/34/disabilityemploymentadvisors
6 New Enterprise Allowance Accessed: 8 June 2016 https://www.gov.uk/newenterpriseallowance
7 Even Break Accessed 8 June 2016 http://www.evenbreak.co.uk/
8 Disability Jobsite Accessed 8 June 2016 http://www.disabilityjobsite.co.uk/
9 Routhier F, Vincent C, Desrosiers J, Nadeau S.
Mobility of wheelchair users: a proposed performance assessment framework. Disabil Rehabil. 2003 Jan 7;25(1):1934.
10 Reasonable adjustments for disabled workers Accessed 08 June 2016 https://www.gov.uk/reasonableadjustmentsfordisabledworkers