Presenting “Back to Work”: A new series to help people with spinal cord injuries re-enter the workforce

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At Will2Walk, we believe that resuming an active life post-injury is essential for well being and piece of mind.

“The idea of returning to work should be introduced earlier in the recovery process than it traditionally is.”~ Lynette Ballard, of the University of Utah Hospital Rehabilitation Center.

Moving from injury to work

After you sustain a spinal cord injury (SCI), worrying about getting a job may very well be the last thing on your mind amid the concerns of rebuilding your physical strength and capabilities.

For some, the thought of working outside the home may be dismissed completely as the initial challenges of relearning even basic tasks like toileting or getting dressed seem overwhelming.

And for family members and friends, the question “How will you earn a living now?” might seem like an off-limits topic for conversation.

This article will share ideas and resources that will help get you “Back to Work.”

Thinking about working can help in recovery

“The idea of returning to work should be introduced earlier in the recovery process than it traditionally is,” says Lynette Ballard, a licensed clinical social worker and the designated Spinal Cord Injury Social Worker at the University of Utah Hospital Rehabilitation Center.

In Ballard’s practice, 75 percent of the SCI patients are men between the ages of 30 and 60 who were already in the workforce at the time of their accidents. This means that the great majority of people she treats had work for a key source of self-esteem and identity before their accidents.

“These men are more socially disposed to the idea of going back to work so talking about that up front is more comfortable for them. As a general rule though, women are more apt to return to work than men. Only one of my female patients is not working,” Ballard says.

The workplace is more accommodating today

Today, 15 percent of Ballard’s patients go back to work. While this sounds like a low number, it has actually improved in the last 18 years that she’s been practicing—much of it due to the workplace changes that have occurred since the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was enacted in July 1990.

Because of the awareness and education the ADA has fostered, the able-bodied public is a lot more accepting of people in wheelchairs and open to seeing them more fully integrated into all parts of society, including the workplace.

“With recent changes to the law, you can now work and still received a portion of the SSD payment,” says Ballard. “This law is important because working a 40-hour week is hard for those with SCIs, especially in the beginning.”

If, prior to your accident, you were working in one of the so-called “white collar” professions (doctors, lawyers, government workers, lab technicians, teachers, etc.), you’ll have an easier time of returning to your original job and retaining that same income level. Unless you suffered a brain injury in addition to the spinal cord injury, you didn’t lose the knowledge and skills stored in your head, and the workplace environment is more easily adaptable for a wheelchair.

“If you’re a construction worker or a mechanic, you’re going to have a harder time of it,” says Ballard, speaking frankly. “If you’re open to retraining, there are vocational rehab programs available at the state and federal levels that can help with transportation, training and scholarships.”

You can even start planning to work while in rehab

The sooner you start to plan for this possibility, the faster you’ll advance toward whatever employment goal you set for yourself.

“I discuss this aspect of my patient’s recovery at the earliest possible time,” Ballard says. “This discussion allows the patient to incorporate back-to-work goals into their rehab programs whether the intention is to return to work as soon as possible or is left more open ended.”

How long will it take you to get back to work?

When asking how long will it take you to re-enter the workforce, remember one thing: Everyone is different. There’s no set expectation because each person is unique, starting from a different physical reality (C-7 vs. L-5 capabilities for instance).

One of Ballard’s patients, who battled skin breakdowns and urinary tract infections for 10 years, has decided he’s well enough now and wants to go back to work. For others, emotional and psychological hurdles also play a role.

“People can get stuck in their anger over a life that is radically different than it was before their injury, or they may not have been doing well even before the SCI,” says Ballard. “Consider the person whose spinal cord injury was the result of a car accident while impaired. They have to learn how to deal with the SCI, and just as importantly, address the issues that caused their drug or alcohol abuse.”

Ballard is also adamant that getting a paycheck should not be your only measure of success: “Even if someone isn’t able to return to a ‘paying’ job, I know many people with SCIs who volunteer, become mentors, get involved in public speaking, etc. While these are not necessarily the traditional ‘return to work’ scenarios, they are still valid, valuable forms of work that give a person a real sense of productivity and self-worth.”

Facing challenges head-on

As with everything else in this process of rebuilding your life, going back to work will require facing new uncomfortable situations, but the sense of accomplishment and the feeling of being back in control is worth the discomfort and trepidation you may experience at first.

“Some people are terrified of going back to work,” says Ballard. “Being embarrassed by a public bowel or bladder accident is among the biggest concerns. Others worry that they won’t be taken seriously at work. The fear of not being accepted or not receiving approval is an impediment for many.”

Ballard suggests these things to help you overcome your fears:

  • Find a peer mentor. He or she has been in your shoes and has invaluable advice and support to offer. If you don’t have someone to mentor you, please contact us at Will2Walk directly. We will be happy to put you in touch with others who understand your concerns.
  • Seek advice from a social worker or counselor as early as possible. They are a great resource for the financial, physical and psychological issues you will tackle.
  • Get to know your legal rights. If you feel that your facing workplace discrimination, there is help available.
  • Be as transparent as possible with your prospective employer about the accommodations you will need: daily hours, number of breaks, work station setup, etc.
  • And most importantly, Believe that you can do this. You can!

“I would also like to remind employers that when they hire someone with a spinal cord injury, they are getting a truly dedicated worker,” says Ballard, “someone who has overcome great obstacles in order to go back to work. That’s a real asset.”

Resources for your return to work

American with Disabilities Act (ADA):

Social Security/Working While Disabled Information:

Construction Community on Wheels (Dallas/Fort Worth area):

Advice for negotiating with federal and state programs; adaptive equipment evaluations:

Choices Manual (Chapter 12 deals with Vocational Rehab):

National Rehabilitation Information Center:

National Spinal Cord Injury Association:

Centers for Independent Living (CILs) are private, nonprofit corporations that provide services to maximize the independence of individuals with disabilities and the accessibility of the communities they live in:

Peer support website for people with SCI:

Please check in for next installments of “Back to Work.” We have more tips and profiles of other people with SCI who are successful in the world of work.

Would you like a volunteer activity to get you started? Here at Will2Walk, we always need volunteers, from writing to researching to fundraising. Please see our Volunteer with Will2Walk page for more information.

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