13 July 2010

Disabled doesn’t mean unable

I work with a young Czech RN who, because of an equestrian accident, is a paraplegic. She is an excellent nurse, still honing her craft, but with a zeal for knowledge and new skills that puts most professionals to shame. She is everything a nurse should be: compassionate, intelligent, skilled, astute and amiable. Her patients like her, but more importantly, they respect and trust her.

She drives a hand-gear vehicle, kayaks, snow skis and hand bicycles. She always was, and remains, a jock, adapting every sport she can to the constraints of her physical capacity. I know of no one at our embassy that views her as unable. Of course, she has some limitations, but don’t we all, one way or another? I think Americans have made significant progress in overcoming bias or stigma toward people who are different. The Czechs need to work on that, too.

Unfortunately for my colleague, the Czech Republic is a difficult place for people with physical limitations. To be sure, a large part of the problem is that buildings are very old here and, because of laws that prevent destruction of these precious structures, most can’t be adapted for improved handicapped access.

A law is in place that ensures adequate access for new buildings, but there just aren’t that many new buildings and the law doesn’t address problems in getting to them. Parking places for handicapped are woefully inadequate and, in many of the most popular spots, absent. Sidewalks are rough and don’t have ramps for wheelchair traffic. Bathroom doors aren’t wide enough, stalls aren’t wheelchair accessible, and there are often no elevators. The excellent public transportation system provides only minimal access for wheelchairs, making them virtually useless.

The worst insult to my very capable colleague is the prevalent public opinion that she is somehow less because she doesn’t walk. She often recounts the disbelief she gets when she meets someone new and says she is a practicing registered nurse. “But how?” they respond, as if all nursing duties require functioning legs! Yes, our clinic has made some accommodation, but truly little was required. And all those things I mentioned above that a good nurse should be are managed just fine from a sitting position.

I know that this situation will be cured with time. America started working on this issue decades ago. The Czechs will address it as well. In the meantime, my colleague is employed in an American clinic where she is treated with respect and equality and granted the opportunity to continue the work she loves.

For Reflections on Nursing Leadership (RNL), published by the Honor Society of Nursing, Sigma Theta Tau International.


  1. I definitely agree with you. I did an interview with one of my favourite professors that works with schools of nursing to get them in line with this sort of thinking. Although it is obviously challenging to find ways to adapt it does not mean it is not possible. Especially when working with patients that are going through life altering illness, seeing what is possible despite altered abilities give them hope for their future and helps the nurse relate to the patient experience.

  2. Good for you for supporting her. If she's willing, you might see if PAS wants to do anything with her - at my old post we had a paraplegic employee who went on to win marathons.


  3. Anonymous24 July, 2010

    Thank you for sharing this. Although my health issues are very different from those of your colleague, they occassionally get in the way of my being all i once was and would like to be professionally. Many have encouraged me to take disability. Those who understand know there is too much passion, knowledge, skill and ability in an experienced RN to even conceive of such craziness. With understanding and accommodation, we have much to contribute. Thank you for promoting that cause for all of us. (Believe it or don't, this is the first time i have ever blogged about anything).

  4. Thanks for the post, it was very informative.