- Nurses with a learning disability may face discrimination in the workplace that stems from a lack of information, support, and accommodation.
- Nurses and nurse management can support the education and work function of nurses with learning disabilities, which in turn can expand the diversity and inclusivity of the workforce.
- Nurses working with a learning disability may experience greater fatigue, benefit from technological support, and should know their rights in the workplace.
Nurses with physical or learning disabilities may face discrimination in the workplace. According to research, this stems from a lack of information about a nurse’s abilities and a lack of support and accommodation. Staff nurses responsible for a nursing student’s clinical education are often not prepared to meet the needs of nurses with learning disabilities.
The overriding concern is that patient care will be jeopardized. Nurse educators and preceptors may confuse the ability to complete academic tasks with the required skills necessary for patient care. Yet, when surveyed, nursing leaders ranked their staff with disabilities as “exceptional” or “above average” employees.
Managers who had experience working with nurses with a learning disability had a greater willingness to hire another nurse with a learning disability. Experts believe that it’s time to move beyond advocating for nurses with disabilities in the workplace to promoting the recruitment and retention of those same nurses.
According to the Learning Disabilities Association of America, there are four common types of learning disabilities. These include individuals who have difficulty with reading and language processing (dyslexia), math (dyscalculia), handwriting and fine motor skills (dysgraphia), and facial expression and body language recognition (nonverbal learning disabilities).
Working as a nurse with learning disabilities expands the diversity and inclusivity of the nursing workforce. This demonstrates to patients and families that working as a nurse with a learning disability is possible.
Consider these six tips for nurses with learning disabilities.
6 Tips for Working as a Nurse With a Learning Disability
We had an in-depth conversation with Gail Trauco, RN, BSN-OCN, who was diagnosed with dyslexia as a first-year college student. Trauco has since worked in healthcare for over four decades. She is the CEO and founder of PharmaKon, which specializes in clinical pharmaceutical product development and trials.
Trauco shared some of the challenges she experienced as a nurse living with a learning disability and the strategies she has used to overcome them. These are the top six tips she offered from her experience in healthcare and what supported her successful entrepreneurial journey.
1 | Avoid Fatigue
Fatigue is a major factor that can worsen the symptoms of dyslexia. She advises nurses and nurse managers to be aware of the impact fatigue has on performance and patient outcomes.
“Twelve-hour shifts are NOT beneficial to maximize performance for nursing with learning disabilities. Exhaustion after about nine hours of bedside nursing creates a disadvantage for nurse performance for the last three hours of a 12-hour shift,” she says.
2 | Take Advantage of Medical Apps
Trauco warns that some of the medical technology that reduces mistakes or improves patient care may be challenging aids for nurses working with a learning disability. For example, chemotherapy infusion pumps may be difficult to program for a nurse with a learning disability.
However, there are a significant number of smartphone medical apps for nurses that reduce the workload and lower stress levels. These apps place nearly all the information a nurse needs at their fingertips.
For example, Epocrates is a robust, user-friendly app with a free and paid version. It covers management guidance, evidence-based clinical practice guidelines, podcasts, and has a pill identifier with images.
3 | Triple-Check for Accuracy
A 2016 study suggests that medical errors are under-recognized and are the third leading cause of death in the U.S. It is crucial that all nurses check and double-check their calculations and medication administration for accuracy.
Trauco adds that triple-checking for accuracy is one tip for nurses with learning disabilities that should not be overlooked. She describes the process she used when using chemotherapy infusion pumps while working as an oncology nurse.
“Double and triple verification of the entered numbers to ensure accuracy. Check, double-check, and request another nurse to verify settings to ensure programming accuracy,” she advises.
4 | Read, Read, Read
When asked about her top tip for working as a nurse with learning disabilities, Trauco mentioned investing in education. For instance, dyslexia can increase the challenge for nurses who are working in a fast-paced and changing environment.
It can be difficult to learn new medications or treatment modalities on the fly. When faced with the necessity of expanding your knowledge to follow up-to-date protocols, nurses with learning disabilities may require further time and education.
“Invest in extra reading and professional education. You will benefit and find intellectual reinforcement to simplify tasks,” Trauco says. “Read, read, read … to fully understand medical and scientific material.”
5 | Ask for Help
If you are like most people, you’d rather help others than ask for help yourself. Yet, asking for help is one of the kindest things you can do for others. It allows your colleagues to extend a helping hand, and it helps inform them of the challenges you face each day.
Psychologists believe that people hesitate to ask for help because they don’t want to be a burden or don’t want to be seen as vulnerable. They also don’t want to make assumptions that people have the time or want to help.
Because of discrimination and past experiences, nurses with a learning disability may not want to feel vulnerable or may assume their colleagues are too busy.
However, unless a nurse asks for help, they may place themself or their patient in danger, they increase the risk of burnout, and they increase job-related nursing stress. Remember how it makes you feel to help others and take a leap. Ask your colleagues for help when it’s needed.
6 | Know Your Rights
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) offers aid for nurses working with a learning disability. Both the ADA and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, also called just “504,” apply to people with a challenge that significantly limits a major life activity.
A learning disability fits this description. Both sections of the law protect against discrimination. The ADA requires employers to treat a nurse with a learning disability fairly and to make all reasonable accommodations.
The ADA does not list all applicable disabilities but outlines the conditions under which a disability must fall to be covered. The courts must consider if the applicant has limitations that are covered. In most instances, learning disabilities are covered.
It is crucial for nurses with learning disabilities to know their rights and apply them to ensure an equitable and fair work environment. If you believe you are facing discrimination because of your learning disability, consider talking with an experienced disability attorney.
They can advise you on the specifics of your case and may help resolve the situation with a simple letter requesting the employer follow the necessary steps required by law.
Meet Our Contributor
Gail Trauco, RN, BSN-OCN
A registered oncology nurse, pharmaceutical trials expert, and long-time patient advocate, Gail Trauco has spent four decades helping patients navigate the sea of red tape in the U.S. healthcare system. She is the CEO of The PharmaKon LLC, which specializes in clinical pharmaceutical product development and trials.
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