Spinal Cord Injury

Although many people believe Spinal Cord Injury (SCI) prevents you from working, this is frequently not true. In a Model System study of people with SCI, 63% were employed at the time of their injury. Eight years after the injury,

  • 37% with paraplegia were employed, and
  • 30% with tetraplegia were employed.

You may be concerned about returning to work and the barriers to returning. Or perhaps you want to go back to school, complete your education, and find a career path. Many options remain open to you.

Return to Work

In 1996, Athanasou studied a sample of Australians with SCI and found that 31% were employed full-time or part-time. The median hours worked were 38 and the median length of employment was 108 months.

Recent findings by SCI researchers Krause and Murphy document several factors that serve as predictors for return to work.

  • The post-injury employment status is better among persons with paraplegia than among those with tetraplegia.
  • On average, those who were younger at the time of injury, were Caucasian, have paraplegia, and have completed more years of school are more likely to return to employment.
  • Having lived more years with SCI is predictive of employment.
  • Level of pre-injury secondary schooling and study since injury are related to labor force participation.

The ability to continue working at the same job depends upon the type of injury you have sustained and the nature of the work performed. The more physically demanding a pre- injury job was, the less likely you are to return to that position. However, sedentary work may be accomplished with accommodation.

If you cannot perform your old job, you may want to ask your employer about returning to your job with reasonable modifications or adjustments in job duties. Or your employer may have a different position available for you. Krause's 1999 study found that employment at injury was associated with a greater probability of post-injury employment, but only in the first few years after injury.

You may have to alter your daily activities or change jobs to accommodate your injury. In addition, your physician may recommend that intensive physical and/or occupational therapy be completed before you attempt a return to work. This ensures that you are as physically fit as you need to be to accomplish your daily work activities.

Barriers to Return to Work

Transportation and architectural barriers are common barriers to return to work. Since passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), most public buildings have provided necessary accommodations. However, smaller, private facilities may not be ADA compliant. Transportation barriers may include lack of modified transportation to accommodate your wheelchair, lack of availability of a driver, or lack of reliable, accessible public transportation.

Pre-Career Injuries: Returning to School

Since most people with SCI are injured at a young age, perhaps you had not established a career before your injury.

In 1999, Sandford studied timelines for returning to school. The median time for return to school after hospital discharge was 10 days for individuals with paraplegia and 62 days for individuals with tetraplegia.

Barriers to Return to School

Architectural and transportation difficulties are barriers to return to school. Though these difficulties remain problematic, they don't seem to prohibit a return. Most academic institutions have made accommodations for students with SCI, including accessible buildings, Disabled Student Services, and relocating classes from inaccessible buildings.

Seeking Vocational Guidance

Exploring vocational options and establishing a vocational identity may be more challenging if you have an SCI. A vocational counselor or certified rehabilitation counselor (CRC) who specializes in spinal cord injuries can assist you in exploring appropriate and interesting careers. Working with a counselor is recommended.

You can ask about a counselor at a rehabilitation hospital or at the state division of vocational rehabilitation. As you gain an understanding of your physical capacity and endurance, you'll be better able to research occupations. Look for occupations that may accommodate your injury, including ones that allow part-time and full-time employment.

Computer Training

Cruse's 1996 study found that computer use and training may be of special benefit to SCI individuals. Computer technology lessens the impact of mobility limitations that follow SCI.

Unfortunately, individuals with SCI appear to have less access to computers, because most people learn how to use computers at work! Forty-six percent of people studied use a computer and 22% received computer training since the injury. This is much lower than the non-SCI population.

Inquiring about low- or no-cost adult education classes in your area is a great way to obtain the computer skills necessary to explore the Internet, develop new friendships, and find helpful resources.


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