The "Differently Abled" Nurse Speaks

  1. 37

    Despite the popular image of nurses as healthy people who model the healthful behaviors we want our patients to adopt, we come in all sizes, ages, genders, and abilities. Here are a few thoughts on being a nurse who is less than perfect.

    I have long despised the word "disability". While it's certainly an improvement over the frightful "handicapped", it still smacks of patronization, as in "Oh, we can't expect too much from Mary, she's disabled. Don't give her anything hard to do."Thus, I prefer the term "differently abled".

    Yes, it's awkward and doesn't roll off the tongue quite as smoothly, but I think it's a more apt description of nurses who have physical and/or mental health issues, and yet who bring many gifts and talents to this profession in spite---or because---of their condition.

    I wonder sometimes how a nurse who has never been ill in some way is supposed to relate to patients. Not that it's necessary to experience every human misery in order to take care of people, but let's face it: no one who has NOT been overweight or obese at some point in life can possibly understand what it's like to live inside a 300-pound body. Nor can a person who's never battled a serious mental illness comprehend the desperation that drives someone to attempt suicide. Patients need nurses who can at least imagine what they're going through, if not identify with them; they don't need perfect size-2 Mary Sunshine clones preaching at them from some lofty ivory tower.

    That's why it puzzles me that so many institutions, such as hospitals and high-end care facilities, are so leery of hiring nurses with a little sinus condition (so to speak). Whether they like it or not, nurses come in all sizes, ages, genders, and abilities. We are young and we are older; we have bad backs and bum knees; we get migraines and MRSA. Many of us fight anxiety and depression, in no small part due to the stresses of our work; in fact, I'd bet a month's pay that at least a third of us are on prescription medications for these (or similar) conditions.

    And yet, as judgmental as management can be toward nurses with "nonconformities" of one sort or another, that's small potatoes compared with the way nurses themselves view each other. It's a shame, but the truth is, most of us can spot another nurse's weaknesses with the accuracy of a sniper. It doesn't take much for the co-worker who's carrying an extra 50 pounds to be labeled as "lazy", the older nurse to be called "slow", or the one with labile emotions to be whispered about in the break room ("I think there's something wrong with that Mindy girl"). Nurses do eat our young, yes, but also our old and experienced, our empaths, our free spirits.

    What, then, can be done to assure a place at the table for every kind of nurse? Other than a full cultural shift in thinking, a good place to start would be for us as individuals to develop an appreciation of the gifts each of us brings to the profession. For example, I once knew a nurse who was a survivor of domestic violence, a woman so shy that most of our co-workers either ignored her or made fun of her behind her back ("she's so quiet that she could be dead for a week and we'd never know it"). It turned out that she knew how to calm violent patients better than anyone else---a craft undoubtedly learned from years of negotiating with her abuser---and after a couple of demonstrations of this ability, she became the one we all turned to whenever a situation began to escalate.

    Let us also try to view the "differently abled" at least as charitably as we do the perfect (or near-perfect). No one gets up in the morning saying "Let's see, how can I make life more difficult for my co-workers today?" The overweight nurse doesn't want to put anybody out or make them work harder; in fact, she's embarrassed when she can't move as fast as her thinner counterparts. But she's strong and she's kind, and she'll help you with chart checks and fingersticks when you're swamped at the end of your shift.

    Likewise for that odd little duck who runs hot and cold, isn't always sure of herself and tends to get easily distracted by competing priorities. She isn't being scatterbrained on purpose---trust me, the feeling of having all the TV channels on in your head at the same time isn't pleasant. Chances are though, when a psych patient who is desperately needy comes up to the floor and pushes his call button thirty times an hour, she'll probably be the one he opens up to, taking the pressure off other staff members and giving her something to do for which she is uniquely qualified. A win/win situation for all concerned.

    As Kermit the Frog used to say, it's not easy being green........nor is it easy being a nurse with medical or psychological challenges. Let us do our best to remember that everyone has something to offer, and that even the least among us has a talent or ability that can be used to benefit our patients, our employers, and one another.

    It's all good. Namaste.
    Last edit by Joe V on Nov 4, '12

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  2. About VivaLasViejas, ASN, RN

    VivaLasViejas has '17' year(s) of experience and specializes in 'LTC, assisted living, geriatrics, psych'. From 'The Great Northwest'; 55 Years Old; Joined Sep '02; Posts: 25,273; Likes: 36,816.

    Read more articles from VivaLasViejas

    20 Comments so far...

  3. 7
    I've recently started nursing school after 2 years of online classes for a psych degree. I took online classes because of my "differently abledness". It was very difficult for me to go through a school day and interact with large groups of my peers in a way that wasn't deemed socially awkward. I've since become much more comfortable and confident in myself and am pleased as punch to be in school and learning. This is not to say I'm all better, in fact, I'll live and work with being different the rest of my life. However, I do the best I can with what I have and never use it as an excuse otherwise. I work my behind off, and it's sad and somewhat frustrating that some people only see someone with a "disability", rather than someone who brings something different or extra to the table. It wont stop us, though. We're all awesome the way we are, and we'll keep doing our best despite what anyone else has to say about it.
    pseudomonas, mitral, bellcollector, and 4 others like this.
  4. 5
    You are so right. I used to work with a nurse that had a paralyzed hand. I think it may have been some type of genetic thing from birth. Awesome nurse in all respects, great at starting IVs almost one handed. And just all around great. I have worked with several nurses with "issues" and they are all wonderful.
  5. 6
    The "Differently Abled" Nurse Speaks ---

    Awesome post! That's just a great reminder of how we should stop and think about the way we treat eachother makes a difference. We can elevate our profession through dedication to being positive and considerate.
    acerbia, biggirl11, twinkletoes53, and 3 others like this.
  6. 6
    Thank you so much for this topic and bringing exposure to it.This is so long over due. I have mentioned before here on line that I had several eye issues that have made both seeing and learning more challenging. The impact for me is it has made me tender and empathic. I have learned that if you remain open ,without judgement pt respond, express their hearts and need and it propells them forward faster towards health . Even here on this site I have had my actions questioned,rather than seeing kindness as a positive thing I have been questioned if my caring was "unhealthy " or perhaps "unprofessional ". I am more sensitive to suffering because of my life experience and I see that as a virtue not a vice.I am kind and I am not ashamed of it. Pt respond to me because they know I "see " them.
    Just this past Friday, I was with one of our out pt in the ED. I did this on my time because in my heart it was the "right " thing to do.I felt I had to justify here this action. Is it so out of the box,to be kind ,to be there for someone who is confused,scared out of their mind. This pt was 350lbs I see how we treat people , the truth is overweight people do not get the care ,they are judged, overlooked and that is the reality.. I went there so she could get the kind of care that everyone should get . Sorry I'm getting a little ranty when I see people being treated unkindly a hot nerve in me blows.
    Last edit by echoRNC711 on Nov 4, '12
    biggirl11, twinkletoes53, lantanaRN, and 3 others like this.
  7. 2
    Thank you so much for this. You wrote it beautifully and I liked especially the mentioning of different genders. We have quite a ways to go.
    twinkletoes53 and VivaLasViejas like this.
  8. 13
    I am not bothered by the terms "disability" and "handicap" -- and yes, I have a disability. I have significant hearing and balance losses and there are times I need special accommodations because of those handicaps. I don't just have "different hearing ability," I have less abilty to hear. To pretend my handicap doesn't exist or to deny it's significance does not help me -- the denial just gives me another obstacle I have to overcome.

    My challenges in the workplace are often compounded by people who don't "see" my handicaps and therefore, don't automatically make adjustments for them. That is often the case for people with hearing losses. We need people to speak up, speak clearly, face us when they talk, take their hands away from their mouths, etc. and struggle when people forget to do those things. I have even considered wearing a button that says "Please face me, I read lips," just to remind my co-workers of my handicap even though the button's message would be an exaggeration.

    Perhaps another reason I don't mind the word "handicap" is because I come from a family that plays golf. In golf, everyone has a handicap based on their average level of play. The handicapping system allows strong and weak golfers to play together and compete against each other on a "level playing field." People with different handicaps (representing different levels of skill) play together and compete against each other all the time. The open acknowledgement of those differences and the adjustments of scores based on the handicaps makes that possible. It's a good thing.

    Yes, people with wheel chairs need ramps. People with learning disabilities need special educational accommodations. etc. etc. etc. These things are a lot easier to deal with when we acknowledge them openly without shame and acknowledge that they effect our work. Only then can the proper accommodations be made so that the individuals strengths can be fully utilized. Personally, it feels condescending to me when people without handicaps use awkward phrases like "differently abled" that sound artificial and overly "politically correct."

    I don't think the words are the real problem. The fact that people feel shame or "less than" because of the words is the problem -- and changing the words won't actually fix that. If the underlying issues are not solved, the new politically correct terms will evoke the same negative emotions. Having been a member of the hearing loss community for many years, and been friends with many people in the process of losing their hearing abilities ... I have found that a great weight is often lifted from our shoulders when we let go of that shame -- and proudly announce to the world that we are deaf and/or hard of hearing. Yes, I have a handicap. Yes, I have a disability -- AND THAT'S OK.
    Last edit by llg on Nov 5, '12
    silenced, HappyPepper, acerbia, and 10 others like this.
  9. 3
    You make some good points, llg, and I respect that. Thank you for showing us another way to think about the words we use to describe the chronic conditions that plague us, both visible and invisible. Like your hearing loss, my issues are not the kind that announce themselves by the presence of a wheelchair or a cane but are just as challenging, if not more so because people can't see that there's something different about us and assume that we're "normal". Which is another word I find frustrating, because really......what IS "normal", anyway??
  10. 4
    Quote from VivaLasViejas
    I have long despised the word "disability". While it's certainly an improvement over the frightful "handicapped", it still smacks of patronization, as in "Oh, we can't expect too much from Mary, she's disabled. Don't give her anything hard to do."Thus, I prefer the term "differently abled".

    Yes, it's awkward and doesn't roll off the tongue quite as smoothly, but I think it's a more apt description of nurses who have physical and/or mental health issues, and yet who bring many gifts and talents to this profession in spite---or because---of their condition.

    I wonder sometimes how a nurse who has never been ill in some way is supposed to relate to patients. Not that it's necessary to experience every human misery in order to take care of people, but let's face it: no one who has NOT been overweight or obese at some point in life can possibly understand what it's like to live inside a 300-pound body. Nor can a person who's never battled a serious mental illness comprehend the desperation that drives someone to attempt suicide. Patients need nurses who can at least imagine what they're going through, if not identify with them; they don't need perfect size-2 Mary Sunshine clones preaching at them from some lofty ivory tower.

    That's why it puzzles me that so many institutions, such as hospitals and high-end care facilities, are so leery of hiring nurses with a little sinus condition (so to speak). Whether they like it or not, nurses come in all sizes, ages, genders, and abilities. We are young and we are older; we have bad backs and bum knees; we get migraines and MRSA. Many of us fight anxiety and depression, in no small part due to the stresses of our work; in fact, I'd bet a month's pay that at least a third of us are on prescription medications for these (or similar) conditions.

    And yet, as judgmental as management can be toward nurses with "nonconformities" of one sort or another, that's small potatoes compared with the way nurses themselves view each other. It's a shame, but the truth is, most of us can spot another nurse's weaknesses with the accuracy of a sniper. It doesn't take much for the co-worker who's carrying an extra 50 pounds to be labeled as "lazy", the older nurse to be called "slow", or the one with labile emotions to be whispered about in the break room ("I think there's something wrong with that Mindy girl"). Nurses do eat our young, yes, but also our old and experienced, our empaths, our free spirits.

    What, then, can be done to assure a place at the table for every kind of nurse? Other than a full cultural shift in thinking, a good place to start would be for us as individuals to develop an appreciation of the gifts each of us brings to the profession. For example, I once knew a nurse who was a survivor of domestic violence, a woman so shy that most of our co-workers either ignored her or made fun of her behind her back ("she's so quiet that she could be dead for a week and we'd never know it"). It turned out that she knew how to calm violent patients better than anyone else---a craft undoubtedly learned from years of negotiating with her abuser---and after a couple of demonstrations of this ability, she became the one we all turned to whenever a situation began to escalate.

    Let us also try to view the "differently abled" at least as charitably as we do the perfect (or near-perfect). No one gets up in the morning saying "Let's see, how can I make life more difficult for my co-workers today?" The overweight nurse doesn't want to put anybody out or make them work harder; in fact, she's embarrassed when she can't move as fast as her thinner counterparts. But she's strong and she's kind, and she'll help you with chart checks and fingersticks when you're swamped at the end of your shift.

    Likewise for that odd little duck who runs hot and cold, isn't always sure of herself and tends to get easily distracted by competing priorities. She isn't being scatterbrained on purpose---trust me, the feeling of having all the TV channels on in your head at the same time isn't pleasant. Chances are though, when a psych patient who is desperately needy comes up to the floor and pushes his call button thirty times an hour, she'll probably be the one he opens up to, taking the pressure off other staff members and giving her something to do for which she is uniquely qualified. A win/win situation for all concerned.

    As Kermit the Frog used to say, it's not easy being green........nor is it easy being a nurse with medical or psychological challenges. Let us do our best to remember that everyone has something to offer, and that even the least among us has a talent or ability that can be used to benefit our patients, our employers, and one another.

    It's all good. Namaste.
    The intent of this post is honorable but I don't think of being overweight or older as a disability or being "differently abled".

    Also, I have met some overweight nurses who were lazy and unkind just like I have met some who worked circles around me. Same for older nurses. So I guess the thing to do is just treat people as individuals and not pre-judge them which was your original point I suppose.
  11. 4
    Thank you for a wonderful post. The more diversity we can embrace in each other's experiences the better.
    A professor told a story of one of her coworkers who used a wheel chair: Whenever the coworker was called disabled, she'd refer to the other person of "temporarily abled." How's that for perspective!
    cownurse, joanna73, VivaLasViejas, and 1 other like this.


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