If you’ve ever seen the “Because” public service announcement from the Office of Disability Employment Policy, you’ve seen Kayla Woolridge swim. While filming the PSA, Kayla, who has spina bifida and uses a wheelchair, got to chatting with my staff about her career goals. Although still a few years out from college, Kayla has been thinking about becoming a neonatal intensive care unit nurse. When I heard this, I thought how great it would be if she does indeed pursue that path — because the nursing industry is going to need her.
According to the department’s Bureau of Labor Statistics, the health care industry dominates the list of occupations projected to be most in demand in coming years, and the demand is particularly acute in nursing. The nation will need about 19 percent more registered nurses by 2022, a growth rate that significantly outpaces the 11 percent average among all occupations. For nurse anesthetists, nurse midwives and nurse practitioners, this projection is even higher — 31 percent. As a result, the industry is closely examining its employment and training practices to ensure they are fully inclusive of all qualified individuals.
In March, ODEP collaborated with partners to host a policy roundtable focusing on strategies for using the skills of people with disabilities, including veterans, to fill this gap between supply and demand. This event convened more than 40 diverse thought leaders, including employers, state and federal policymakers, researchers and educational administrators, from across the country.
One fact surfaced repeatedly throughout the discussion: People with disabilities not only represent an untapped talent pool that can help respond to looming labor shortages in nursing and other health care occupations, but they also offer significant value and insight that can improve care for patients and their families.
That last point is what got me thinking about Kayla, and why I hope that she does in fact become a NICU nurse. She would serve as a powerful example to parents, some who may be adjusting to having a child with a disability and wondering what that child’s future might look like. That’s why we at ODEP are committed to ensuring that Kayla — and all other people with disabilities who want to work in health care can do so, whether they grow up with a disability or acquire one while already in the workforce. We need not only their skills, but their perspectives as well.
Kathy Martinez is the assistant secretary of labor for disability employment policy.