Nursing School — Students With Mulitple Disabilities

Circa 2005

Colleen has a back injury resulting from two car accidents. She has limited range of motion in her neck, limited ability to turn and bend, and a weight-lifting restriction. At times, she must use a walker or a wheelchair. She has 70 percent hearing loss in her left ear and 30 percent loss in her right ear. Currently working as a nurse and attending graduate school, Colleen shared with Dr. Donna Carol Maheady, author of Nursing Students with Diabilities: Change the Course, the following story of her long journey to the completion of a bachelor’s of science in nursing (BSN) program in the South.

I applied to hundreds of nursing programs across the country; I was accepted at only one. In the beginning, I was forthcoming regarding my disability when completing the applications for admission, but as time went on and I continued to be rejected, I became less open and provided only minimal details. I said I was a student with a disability and I couldn’t lift more than a certain weight. I was never dishonest; it was simply better to wait for a request for details regarding my disabilities.

Rejection came in many ways. Often, I got no response whatsoever from a program, despite my repeated phone calls. Other programs said their policies required a nursing student to be able to lift x number of pounds. I was totally frustrated.

Thankfully, I was accepted at the program I now attend. The university has an office for students with disabilities. They provided a remote control for the doors that are too heavy for me to open. I carry my books in a wheeled suitcase. Sitting is a problem; I can’t sit for three-hour classes in a regular classroom because of the small desks with inadequate backrests. Most of my teachers understand if I have to stand and walk around at the back of the room; however, because I can’t hear from the back of the room, I limit the time I spend there.

Most of the instructors are aware of my hearing loss. One of them gave me tapes to facilitate the learning of heart sounds. The tapes helped, because I could literally place my stethoscope onto the tape recorder in order to amplify the sounds. Additionally, I tape my lectures. Only one professor has been resistant to that.

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When I entered the clinical courses and began caring for patients, I needed more accommodations. In the first semester, faculty members were concerned about my ability to perform clinical tasks because I wear a back brace. In the initial few weeks, instructors assigned another student to do all lifting for me. They seemed more concerned about what I couldn’t do than what I could. I can perform many of the procedures expected of all nursing students, but I’m smart enough to know that I can’t lift a 200- pound person without help; most nurses without disabilities shouldn’t do too much heavy lifting either. Often professors underestimate me and are very surprised at the things I can do.

One of my medical-surgical clinical instructors recently had back surgery and wears her back support to clinical experiences, and it helps that she has a personal understanding of accommodations. During part of the medical-surgical course, students must observe in the operating room (OR). I informed her that I wouldn’t be able to stand in the OR, and she said, “Fine. If you’re not planning to be an OR nurse, it doesn’t matter.” She changed my schedule to exclude both the OR and the surgical recovery room and gave me more medical-surgical experience on the ward.

Often my classmates are equally as helpful. In a course that included learning technical skills in the campus laboratory, the laboratory beds presented a challenge. I had difficulty bending over a bed if it couldn’t be raised to a high position. The equipment was old and often didn’t work; I would try to make do, but my limited body mechanics placed me in a precarious position. Only one of the beds worked well, so when we went to the lab most of my group members said, “This is Colleen’s bed.”

Not everyone is as understanding, though. During my psychiatric nursing rotation, my legs simply didn’t work and I needed to use my wheelchair. The faculty member who taught the course told me I couldn’t use it. In her mind, the minute anyone sat in a wheelchair, that person became a patient. The notion that a nurse can use a wheelchair was still alien. But since we don’t give baths or personal care at the psychiatric hospital and my job was just to be with clients in group counseling sessions, I knew I could work from the chair. I had to recognize that the problem was the instructor’s and not mine. Unfortunately, it was close to mid-term evaluations, and her evaluation of me was that I couldn’t function. She told this to my entire clinical group. That pronouncement did not help doubts several classmates already had about my capability to be a nurse. Overly competitive students, in particular, have a difficult time with me. One student said to me, “People like you shouldn’t bother taking slots in nursing programs from people like us who don’t have disabilities.” I wanted to reply, “I don’t think people with attitudes like yours should be nurses either!”

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Students who have a problem with me are sometimes vocal in grumbling to instructors. Last term, my clinical instructor told me, “Some of the students are complaining that you’re not getting the same experiences they are.” Whose fault was that? If there was something else I should have been doing, the instructors needed to tell me what it was. If they don’t give me the opportunity to try, I don’t have the opportunity to show them I can do the work.

I offered to explain to the clinical group my perception of the assignments and discuss how we could work out the needed adaptations. My instructor said she didn’t think that was necessary. I knew it wasn’t an issue among all of the students—just one or two.

My experiences with patients, however, have been great. Because I spent seven months as a patient myself, I have learned a lot about the frustrations of being in that hospital bed. If nurses were cognizant of what it’s like to be on the other side of the medical chart, they would be better nurses. In one nursing class, an instructor asked how many students had been hospital patients. Only four of us had ever had surgery. We have an advantage in knowing what care we wanted and didn’t receive from the nursing staff, and what we appreciated. I go out of my way to do the little things, like making sure patients have their necessary items, such as lotion, close at hand, or finding a more comfortable position for them. I have patients who hug me and many who cry with me.

In my last clinical, I had a gentleman who didn’t want to go to a hospice to die. He was on continuous morphine to make his pain endurable. I gave him a bath. Both his girlfriend and his ex-wife were there. We had a good time and I soon had him in stitches. I made sure he was shaved. Why should his last days be filled with unpleasant experiences? Suddenly, he started to cry. “Nobody has shaved me in four days,” he said.

One heart patient was having unusual feelings after being placed on a new medication. I reported her statements to the charge nurse, who said that the patient had never complained about those symptoms before—but maybe nobody had asked her. The medication orders were changed, and I had made a difference in somebody’s care. I don’t guarantee that my technical skills are better than those of everyone else in my group, but as far as being a caring person is concerned, I have a great deal to offer. The patients seem to love me.

Being a nursing student with a disability is wonderful and challenging! I haven’t lost that sense of excitement about everything I get to do—the first time I started an intravenous line (IV), the first time I put in a foley catheter. I think those feelings are the same for every nursing student, though I probably go home and giggle about it more than anyone else. Every little hurdle I scale makes me more confident I can get up and do it again tomorrow, even though tomorrow may be one of those days when putting my two feet on the floor causes excruciating pain. I sometimes wonder how I can survive the day, but somehow I put one foot in front of the other. Knowing I’ll be giving to someone else helps me through the aches and pains. The joy of helping people is worth the challenges.

Colleen’s story is adapted from a chapter of Nursing Students with Disabilities: Change the Course, by Donna Carol Maheady, EdD, CPNP, RN, copyright 2003 by Exceptional Parent Press.

A pediatric nurse practitioner and nursing care consultant, Dr. Maheady is an adjunct assistant professor in the College of Nursing at Florida Atlantic University and the founder of, a not-for-profit resource network committed to inclusion of people with disabilities in the nursing profession. Dr. Maheady’s book, which won the 2004 American Journal of Nursing book of the year award in the category of nursing education and continuing education, is available at

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After experiencing the ups and downs of nursing school first-hand, Colleen shares these tips for students with disabilities who hope to become nurses.

Be willing to face challenges and put aside negative comments from others.

Going to school is a full-time job, so don’t work unless it is absolutely necessary. Instead, explore every opportunity for scholarships and financial aid. In addition, adapt your schedule accordingly, getting pre-requisite courses out of the way before beginning a nursing program. Take advantage of summer school.

When applying to different schools, look carefully at each program’s philosophy. If a program strongly emphasizes technical skills and competitiveness, it may not fully appreciate other aspects of nursing, such as empathy and patience.

Study laws that protect students with disabilities, such as the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Rehabilitation Act, and become aware of accommodations you are entitled to receive.

Know your strengths and send a positive message to the schools where you apply, rather than focusing on what you can’t do. In your first meetings with administrators, refrain from negativity.

Learn to take rejection because you may get a lot of it before you get what you want. Don’t stop. Hang on until you find the program that’s perfect for you.

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