Give Nurses in Wheelchairs a Chance

Give Nurses in Wheelchairs a Chance
Alexandra Wilson Pecci, for HealthLeaders Media , December 10, 2013

Although some nurse leaders cling to the rigid requirements of the profession, others are making accommodations for nurses in wheelchairs, sending a powerful message to patients in the process.
A "walking interview" is one of the questionable—to say the least—tactics that one prospective supervisor used during a nursing job interview with Marianne Haugh.
"I had one walking interview…to see if I could handle their huge unit," Haugh recalls, a note incredulity still present in her voice when she talks about it. Haugh was born with spina bifida, and although she can walk short distances, she relies primarily on a wheelchair to get around.
Determined not to let this interviewer get the better of her, Haugh participated in the "walking interview."
"I'll play your game, I'll walk during this interview," Haugh says. So she walked the entire time. Even though was tired. Even though she knew she'd never want to work for this person anyhow.
She didn't get the job.
Nearly a decade after that experience, Haugh now has a string of letters after her name—RN, BSN, MSN, CRRN—and three jobs, working as a staff nurse at 
Shriners Hospital for Children in Chicago, and as a clinical instructor for Harper College and the University of St. Francis. She also won a DAISY Award last week, which recognizes exceptional nurses. Haugh was nominated by patients, Kathy Antos MSN,RN,CPN, a staff education/clinical analyst at Shriners Hospitals for Children, told me. This is what one of the patients' parents wrote:
"Marianne has continued to be an exceptional nurse. She is always on point with patient's needs, very professional, and has never once allowed the fact that she is in a wheelchair herself prevent her from carrying out whatever task needed to be done. I trust my son in her care hands down and have no doubt others feel the same."
Haugh has proved that she's a competent nurse, but it took a long time for anyone to give her a shot. Prospective colleges told her that if she attended, they'd give her free counseling to help her change her major from nursing. The supervisor on Haugh's first clinical rotation in nursing school flat-out said she wasn't allowed to come. Haugh's instructor went to bat for her, and the supervisor relented, but not without first assigning a nurse just to watch Haugh.
"I had a special babysitter," Haugh says. "And she never did anything for me." The "babysitter" only lasted for two classes, but "I had to play the game," she says.
Later, despite having good grades and credentials, it took Haugh nine months to land her first job after graduating from nursing school.
"It always seemed I got past the initial HR phone interview, and then I would get stuck at the unit, the nursing interview," Haugh says. There were always different excuses about why she didn't get the job.
"Nursing is so physical; at least that's the perception. And it is physical, but there's so much more to nursing," Haugh says, adding that the only thing she can't do is physically lift patients. "There's lift equipment, there's other things that you can do."
Marianne's experience with discrimination and doubt because of her use of a wheelchair isn't unusual, says Donna C. Maheady, Ed.D., ARNP, Associate Graduate Faculty of the Christine E. Lynn College of Nursing at Florida Atlantic University and founder of the nonprofit nursing disability resource
Maheady says many nurse leaders "will hide behind" a rigid view of what nurses are supposed to be able to do without even considering whether reasonable accommodations could allow the nurse to work and keep patients safe.
She says the most common objections to hiring a nurse who uses a wheelchair are doing CPR and lifting patients.
"Some nurse leaders who are hiring people will just stand firm on those, and the applicant can't get any further than that. There isn't any discussion of reasonable accommodations or giving the person a trial," Maheady says. "I always encourage a leader in particular to look at the candidate [and ask] is the person otherwise qualified? Can we at least sit down at the table and see how we can accommodate these nurses? Don't just close the door. Can we just keep the door open long enough to have a discussion?"
When it comes to interviewing, Maheady cautions nurse leaders against doing things like requiring a "walking interview." She says she's not a lawyer, but she does know that "you cannot ask one applicant to do something that you don't ask everyone."
Once the door of possible accommodations is open and the discussion is started, Maheady advises reaching out to other leaders who are accommodating nurses in wheelchairs for advice and feedback.
"Look at other similarly situated nurses. How do they do it? Talk to other nurse leaders, Maheady says. "It's being done… in reality I think accommodations are being made quietly and without fanfare."
OK, I counter, but what if a nurse leader simply doesn't want to have to do something like assign a buddy to a nurse in a wheelchair? What if he or she doesn't want to have to make accommodations for the nurses that they hire? Why should they do it?
"You should do it because it would be good for your patients," Maheady says, pointing to Haugh's work at Shriners as an example. Here's someone who's been on both sides of nursing care. Who understands what patients want in a nurse. Who has had to work to combat discrimination and physical limitations and still has the guts and know-how that nursing calls for.
"I think that Marianne's employment there is sending a powerful message to patients in bed," Maheady says. "There's hope. I can have a career, I can have a life. I think an organization that employs a Marianne sends a powerful supportive message."

Alexandra Wilson Pecci is a managing editor for HealthLeaders Media.