Being Productive after Spinal Cord Injury

The real goal of rehabilitation after a spinal cord injury is to get the patient back to a life where they can be as productive as they were before the accident.  While this may mean that the individual must attend some schooling or shift goals around working, returning to a productive work life is possible.  People with spinal cord injuries only really want to get back to school, caring for children, or go back to work—or all three, if that’s what they had been doing before their accident.

The happiest people with spinal cord injuries are those who were able to return to their educational and vocational goals after the injury.  Even those who must change jobs or course of their education because of their injury do well.  This is because they are returning as successful members of society who have the ability to contribute to the world in spite of their injuries.

Going back to school, starting school or going back to work as soon as the person has finished rehabilitation is a good thing because it brings back the structure of the rehabilitation center into the patient’s everyday life.  It also helps with some of the financial struggles these families have and the disabled person can feel as though they are contributing to their family.

Just because these things can be done doesn’t mean they will always be easy or that they can happen right away.  Even though the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) states that employers can’t discriminate against those who have disabilities, there are more subtle forms of discrimination going on and employers can simply be ignorant as to the laws as they apply to the disabled.  Even if they get hired, not all workplaces are disability-friendly and just getting to work and getting in the building can be difficult. A wheelchair-bound paraplegic must have transportation to get to work and this might mean getting a wheelchair accessible van or taking a wheelchair accessible bus.  Some people will need to have a personal care attendant at home just to get them ready to get to work or school.

Financial difficulties are one of the greatest worries of the newly injured person.  They wonder how their family can even begin to pay the bills, especially now that there is the possibility of medical bills to pay for.  But, there is hope.

The Commission on Accreditation of Rehabilitation Facilities (CARF) has mandated that all accredited facilities have a vocational rehabilitation counselor on hand to help patients identify resources for going back to school, getting an education, and changing vocations, if necessary.  They can help answer questions regarding Workman’s Compensation .  They know about state and federal assistance available to the newly disabled and their families.

Hiring an experienced spinal cord injury lawyer is critical for all individuals involved in a traumatic accident that results in a spinal cord injury.

The vocational rehabilitation counselor needs to assess each patient as to their age, vocational abilities, work history, level of education and other details to help direct the patient toward potentially successful options.  One of the first things they will recommend are the Social Security Disability benefits (SSDI) the person is now entitled to because of their paralysis.  Supplemental Security Income (SSI) is for those who need assistance but who don’t qualify for SSDI.

The local Independent Living Center in your community can assess whether or not you qualify for a personal care attendant.  They can tell you if you qualify for a state-sponsored PCA and how many hours that PCA can work for you.  They can help you choose a good PCA for your particular needs.  In the end, however, it all depends on your own initiative and courage to get out there and make use of the services that are being provided to you.
 
Going Back to Work
 
If you cannot return to your previous job and need help, you need to use the services of a Vocational Rehabilitation Services system, which is a state-run program that helps people who need vocational re-training.  The vocational rehabilitation counselor at these state-run programs will ask you about your health, your limitations and abilities, your criminal record, and about any jobs you have had in the past.  This is a process that lasts less than two months on average.  Once it is shown that you are eligible for vocational rehabilitation services, you can begin job hunting.
 
At this stage, the interests, cognitive abilities and career goals are discussed and put into an Individual Plan of Employment (IPE) which outlines the goals of employment and what the patient needs to do to get to the desired job.  The vocational rehabilitation counselor can assist the disabled person in getting the required education, writing up a resume and learn how to go for interviews.

It is normal to feel really nervous about going back to work, particularly as to whether or not you will be accepted as one of the ordinary employees at your job.  There are a lot of worries a person with disabilities can have around going back to work, but if you can persevere, the right job with accepting peers is within your reach.  A PCA may need to be on call to help you with things like changing your urinary catheter bag while at work unless you can find someone you trust at work to do this for you.
Having a PCA can be nerve-wracking.  PCAs have been known to steal from paralyzed individuals and are not often reliable when it comes to showing up when needed.  The trick is to keep trying so that you can find a PCA that is responsible, loyal, and trustworthy.

If there are issues with the vocational rehabilitation counselor, good communication can help overcome some of these hurdles.  If you are having difficulty with a particular counselor, there can be access to a Client Assistance Program, mandated by law.  Independent Living Centers (ILC) can be helpful when a vocational counselor doesn’t seem to be doing his or her job with regard to your case.  There are support groups at these ILCs that can help you interface with people who have been in your shoes before. 
 
The job interview can be stressful.  One good approach is to focus on your abilities rather than on your disabilities.  Just getting to the interview can be hard.  You may get to the job site and find that it is not handicap-friendly.  It is best, therefore, to be clear on the phone that you have a disability and need to know whether or not the job can be done by someone with the disabilities you have and whether or not the entrance to the building is accessible to you.  This can eliminate awkwardness upon meeting with your prospective employer for the first time.  You may need to put the person interviewing you at ease by demonstrating what you can do rather than on what you cannot do.

Resumes can be developed that provide the employer with the best possible picture of your educational and work background.  A vocational rehabilitation counselor can help you with your resume.  It is a good idea to get your resume out there for those who might later be interested in hiring you even if they don’t have openings right now.  You can advertise online or in print in directories that may land you a job.  The vocational counselor can also step in whenever there are issues you as the disabled prospective employee cannot do yourself.

When you get a job, the work of the vocational rehabilitation counselor usually ends after 90 days but most will stick with you in order to make sure the job is a stable one that will work out for the long haul.  Some paraplegic and tetraplegic persons have problems with job stability so ongoing help may need to be necessary.
Be prepared to be stared at, especially in the beginning of your employment.  This is the time for you to be as outgoing as possible, and to use humor and charm to win over your colleagues and gain their respect.
 
Going Back to School

Some people with paralysis need to be completely retrained for a new profession.  Research has shown that people with higher levels of education have better paying jobs and more job satisfaction than those who don’t pursue further education after their disability.  One good thing is that, since the passage of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, all secondary schools, universities, and colleges must be wheelchair accessible for all areas of the school.  Some larger universities and colleges have a special office for disabled students to help them navigate their education and goals.
 
Many victims of spinal cord injury are young and are paralyzed due to accidents, violence or sports.  Going back to school is more than just getting an education.
These students are allowed to get back into being with peers and hopefully will make friends in their classes that will increase their sociability and decrease isolation.
Many states offer extra financial assistance for disabled students, including books, tuition and other school-related expenses.  There are also many internet-based high schools and colleges that can be undertaken in the comfort of your own home.
 
Leisure Activities
 
Many people with spinal cord injuries were once active people who participated in sports and other activities.  Those who resume some sort of physical activity do better emotionally, physically, and socially than those who aren’t active.  Recreational therapists at the rehab center you attend will have scores of ideas of recreational activities you can do even with your disability.  You can stick to indoor activities or learn how to horseback ride, fish, and sail, among other things.  Sports help people with disabilities control their anxiety and stress levels.
 
Wheelchair basketball is particularly possible.  There are more than 175 US teams in the National Wheelchair Basketball Association (NWBA).  Now there are opportunities in other sports for the disabled, including softball, racquetball, tennis, rock climbing, soccer and scuba diving.  Sitting aerobics is being taught all over the country.  Sometimes the wheelchair needs to be modified for speed and functionality but many of these are already designed for you by previous athletes and interested parties who design these sorts of things.  There is even ‘sled hockey’ for hockey players that glide on the ice without difficulty, and specialized skis for skiers to go downhill skiing.
 
The Paralympic Games have created a whole new level of competition for paralyzed athletes all over the world.  It is usually held three weeks after the regular Olympics in the same community. The Paralympics are the second-biggest competition in the world after the Olympics.  Wheelchair road racing is also very popular among paraplegics.  The quad rugby team is particularly physical, allowing wheelchair-bound people to run into each other and even tip over their opponent.  Billiards and table tennis can be done easily by the paralyzed athlete.

Wheelchair-bound individuals can now travel better, especially since airplanes have become more wheelchair-accessible.  Wheelchair-bound people can travel all over the world.

Wheelchair-bound people can go to work, to school and participate in adapted sports.  This has helped paralyzed patients be more successful in relationships and friendships than ever before.

If you or a loved one have suffered a spinal cord injury and need legal help, please call me anytime at 916-921-6400.
 
Ed Smith
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