Andrea Dalzell has always been the type of person who knows exactly what they want — and exactly how to negotiate to make having those things possible. She’s spunky and always has been, even as she relearned to navigate the world on wheels after being diagnosed with transverse myelitis when she was 5 years old.
Growing up, Andrea wanted to be a doctor — after undergoing 33 surgeries, she was pretty familiar with the hospital, and becoming a doctor felt right for a while. But when she realized how much impact her own nurses had on her experience as a patient, she knew.
“It wasn’t a case of me seeing a nurse in a wheelchair and being inspired to go to medical school. I wish that was the case, but it wasn’t. I hadn’t seen other people with disabilities in the medical field — I only know one other medical professional who took care of me that had a visible and physical disability, and she was a doctor,” she said. “Wanting to be a nurse came about from my knowing that the nurses that took care of me. They were the ones that listened when I was fighting my doctors, telling them I didn’t want to do something. They were the ones advocating for me, holding my hand when my mom couldn’t be in the room.”
For years, Andrea had her sights set on working in acute care. But after interviewing for more than 150 jobs and only getting offers for desk work, remote nursing, and case management, she was kind of fed up.
“[Going into those interviews], I already knew what the biases were going to be — that my wheelchair deems me less than, that I’m not going to be able to push a gurney, do CPR, hang an IV bag, turn or lift a patient, walk a patient to the bathroom. I won’t call anyone out, but there is definitely a bias that I was not expecting to see within nursing. It’s supposed to be this empathetic forward-professing profession that stopped me at the door. And not only me, but others that have physical and visible disabilities. I know that it wasn’t just a one-off situation. It wasn’t just me not being able to speak clearly or say the right thing in an interview. There are clear systemic barriers that have not been broken down yet.”
And that’s where Andrea is working now — advocating for the removal of those systemic barriers both for herself and for other people with disabilities.
“I know it is going to be a continuous uphill battle and that it will be until we see some real systemic change in the healthcare profession…but nurses hold the power. It’s all of us collectively that get to make this a forward-moving profession.”
This kind of advocacy work can be overwhelming when you don’t know where to start, and because of that, Andrea and I want to leave you with some specific action steps. Can you commit to working through this list with me?
- Realize your place in the progressive moment of nursing. Healthcare terminology places people in boxes, and that is not the case for most people with disabilities. Terminology is often used to hurt people with disabilities, to keep them from getting the resources they need.
- Assess your own practice. Can your office accommodate people with disabilities? How are you examining your patients? Are you assuming your patients are not sexually active because they are in a wheelchair? There are dozens of small ways we reinforce ableist healthcare practices in our work, and it’s up to us to pinpoint what those are. Noticing them is the first step to changing them.
- Become familiar with disability etiquette. Terminology has a history of being used as barriers between people with disabilities and the resources they need. And frankly, other terms are just plain offensive! Check out the link below to the United Spinal Association’s Disability Etiquette guide.
- Address the human being before addressing the disability. A person is not disabled — a person has a disability. Language is important, and speaking to the person and not the diagnosis is really critical.
LINKS & RESOURCES MENTIONED TODAY:
- Andrea’s Instagram and Facebook
- Wheels of Progress
- Disability Etiquette from United Spinal Association
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