Careers Helping People with Disabilities
One-quarter of adults in the U.S. live with a disability. Read about the 8 major types of disability and how you can make a difference with a career in disability care.
Last Updated: 08/14/2020
Meet the Expert
Ben Barrett is a social worker who supports adults with mental illness. Ben has a dual bachelor degree in psychology and Spanish language and literature from North Carolina State University and a Master of Social Work from Western Michigan University. He gives back by contributing to his website The How to Social Worker (www.thehowtosocialworker.com).
An estimated 12.6% of the U.S. population lives with a disability, and one in every four adults. Most challenges are physical (~14%) or cognitive (11%) in nature, although millions of Americans also have difficulty with vision, hearing, and overall self-care. While volunteers and family members play important roles in disability care, more and more people are making it a career. From special education teachers and home health aides to occupational and physical therapists, learn how you can help people with disabilities enjoy higher functioning and lower risk lives.
The 8 Main Types of Disabilities (and Careers that Help)
Disabilities come in all shapes and severities, from minor vision or hearing loss to major spinal cord injury. And some disabilities may not be noticeable, even by the person who has it. To help better understand and organize disability research and overall care, the World Health Organization created 8 distinct categories, each with a unique set of disabilities within. We’ve detailed them below, and included information on some of the most popular careers that make a difference.
Mobility & Physical Disabilities
A mobility or physical disability is one of the most common types of disability. They refer to any type of disability that impacts a person’s movement, coordination, or dexterity. These types of disabilities can exist from birth, follow an accident, or occur after an illness. Mobile or physical disabilities include:
- Cystic fibrosis
- Muscular dystrophy
The level of assistance will vary based on the type of severity of the physical impairment. For some, using a pair of crutches for a few months is more than enough. For others, a lifetime of professional medical care plus extensive medical equipment may be needed just to survive. Most with mobility and physical disabilities should expect to use a physical aid of some kind, at least for a short period of time.
Physical therapists work with patients to treat and improve body movements and reduce physical pain, often through physical exercises and stretching. Physical therapists can work with a variety of patients, such as those recovering from an accident, receiving medical treatment for a chronic disease, or living with a permanent disability. Physical therapists also observe patients to help create a treatment plan and assess the effectiveness of existing treatments. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) estimates the demand for physical therapists to grow by 28% from 2018 to 2028. Physical therapists earned a median salary of $87,930 in 2018.
Head Injury & Brain Disabilities
Head and brain injuries can be devastating. They can impact how a person thinks, their personality, and who they are. Two common types include the acquired brain injury (ABI) and traumatic brain injury (TBI). ABI usually refers to brain injuries that occur on the cellular level, often due to a medical issue. In contrast, TBIs are often the result of physical trauma due to an accident. TBIs and ABIs can range from mild to severe. Some individuals have brain disabilities that were there at birth and persist through their lives. Other types of brain or head disabilities include:
- Brain tumor
- Huntington’s chorea
Because brain disabilities can vary widely, the type of care or assistance needed can vary widely, as well. For minor cases, short-term physical or occupational therapy may suffice. For example, helping someone recover from a stroke by learning how to walk or eat again, with a full recovery being possible. With more severe brain disabilities, the therapy could be permanent, with the person being able to live independently with some basic assistance. Or, the person might need around-the-clock care plus the use of medical equipment or communication devices; they might need help with all aspects of living, including bathing, eating, drinking, and sleeping.
Occupational therapists help their patients learn how to perform seemingly routine functions after an injury, such as dressing or preparing food. They may also teach a caregiver the best way to help someone with a disability, evaluate a patient’s current condition, and determine their specific needs and course of treatments. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that occupational therapists earned a median salary of $84,270 in 2018, and their expected growth rate for 2018 to 2028 is 18%.
Spinal Cord Disabilities
Spinal cord disabilities may stem from a birth defect, but they are most commonly the result of a serious accident. Spine-based disabilities can be complete or incomplete damage to the spinal cord. In the former, some of the brain’s signals may still travel through the spinal cord and reach certain parts of the body. This often results in a loss of movement or sensation of the impacted area. Complete spinal cord injuries are more devastating because there is a full loss of feeling and control. Some common types of spinal cord disabilities include:
- Multiple sclerosis
- Spina bifida
With the help of physical therapy and some tools, those with incomplete spinal cord injuries may be able to live fully independent lives. But when there’s a complete spinal cord injury, far more intervention may be required, such as a home health aide, the use of a wheelchair, or other physical devices to help with movement or daily activity. If someone is paraplegic, they might be able to live and thrive with a manual wheelchair. If they’re quadriplegic, they may need a special motorized wheelchair. Outside assistance for daily living may be necessary.
A rehabilitation specialist (sometimes called a rehabilitation counselor), works with people with various disabilities to help them live independently. Much of their work deals with managing the challenges and tasks associated with learning to live with a disability. This can include assessing a clients’ situation to identify the assistance they will require, consulting with medical professionals to design a treatment plan, making arrangements for services, advocating on behalf of the client, and locating resources such as medical equipment or therapists. The BLS reports that the median income for a rehabilitation specialist was $35,630 in 2018, and their projected growth rate is 10% between 2018 and 2028.
Although vision loss can be congenital, it’s often due to disease, genetic anomalies, accidents, or aging. Vision-related disabilities also vary by the part of the eye they affect. For example, cataracts could the lens of the eye as a person ages, and can accelerate their intensity with exposure to ultraviolet light. In contrast, macular degeneration is damage to the macula, which is part of the retina. It usually leads to partial blindness, such as blurred vision in the center of the visual field. Other types of visual impairments include:
- Complete blindness
- Macular degeneration
At minimum, someone with a visual impairment may need regular visits to an eye care professional, such as an ophthalmologist. Sometimes corrective lenses or minor surgeries can help the patient live (and even drive) normally. However, the condition of the eyes must be closely monitored to take action at the first sign of trouble because in many cases, once damage has occurred to the eye, it can be irreversible. Ongoing treatments can include the use of eye drops, special glasses, contact lenses, or blood sugar control.
Opticians work with optometrists or ophthalmologists to help patients obtain the best glasses or contact lenses to meet their eye care needs. They can help those with vision-based disabilities by measuring a patient’s face, repairing eyeglasses, and using patient preferences to find the perfect eye care product. The median salary for an optician was $37,010 in 2018, with a projected 2018 to 2028 growth rate of 7%.
A hearing disability is partial or complete hearing loss in one or both ears. Hearing problems that result in a disability can occur in the outer, middle, or inner portions of the ear. As with many disabilities, hearing loss may be congenital or acquired. Acquired hearing loss can stem from genetic disorders, head injuries, infection, and even loud noise.
- Auditory Processing Disorder
- Central hearing loss
- Conductive hearing loss
- Mixed hearing loss
- Sensorineural hearing loss
Assuming the hearing loss cannot be reversed or remedied, there are two popular pieces of technology that can help. First, a person may be fitted with a hearing aid, which can both amplify and clarify the sound coming into the ear. Next, there are cochlear implants, surgically implanted devices that bypass the ear and send electrical signals directly to the auditory nerve. A person with either a hearing aid or cochlear implant can expect to see an audiologist or other hearing medical professional on a regularly basis. Depending on when the hearing loss occurred, speech therapy, learning of American Sign Language, or learning how to read lips may be necessary as well.
Ear, Nose, and Throat (ENT) Doctor
An ENT, or ear, nose, and throat doctor (also called an otolaryngologist), is a type of surgeon and physician that specializes in problems with these three particular locations of the human body. These three systems are closely interrelated; thus, why the doctor focuses on all three instead of just specializing in one. ENT doctors may conduct surgery to insert a cochlear implant or engage in other medical procedures to address the causes of a hearing impairment.
Cognitive & Learning Disabilities
Sometimes referred to as developmental disorders, cognitive and learning disabilities make it more difficult for a person to accomplish a particular mental task. These tasks can include reading, learning, or speaking. Because human cognition and learning involve a complex process of the human brain, there can be many variations and facets, such issues with memory, problem solving, attention, words, numbers, or visual processing. Here are a few of the more commonly observed disabilities.
- Autism spectrum disorder
In many cases, those with learning or cognitive disabilities need special therapy or teaching. For example, someone who has a speech delay may receive therapy from a speech pathologist, while someone diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder may receive specialized behavioral therapy to help them better understand and function among their peers. This therapy and teaching can enhance the learning or training they receive from teachers, parents, and other therapists. Individuals may be in therapy or receive special education for years or even most of their lives, depending on the severity of the disabilities.
Special Education Teacher
Special education teachers focus on teaching students who have learning, physical, emotional, or cognitive disabilities or challenges. They can teach at all levels of school, but usually only work with those with mild to moderate disabilities. Besides teaching a lesson plan, monitoring student progress, and planning activities for the students, special education teachers also design and implement Individualized Education Programs. The median annual salary of a special education teacher was $59,780 in 2018, according to the BLS. The BLS also predicts that the 2018 to 2028 growth rate will be 3%.
Psychological disabilities are mental disorders that affect a person’s emotions, thinking, and behavior. A mental illness can become a psychological disorder or disability when it substantially interferes with major life activities. Psychological disabilities can create any number of unusual or unpleasant mental processes, including extreme mood swings, hallucinations, and severe anxiety, all of which can prevent a person from learning, communicating, or working with others. The causes of many of these disabilities have inconclusive origins, although environmental and genetic components have been identified. Common psychological disabilities include:
- Bipolar disorder
- Eating disorder
- Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD)
The ongoing treatment for those with psychological disabilities varies widely. A common form of treatment includes counseling therapy, such as cognitive therapy, behavioral therapy, or psychoanalysis. Medications can also be used to treat psychological disabilities by altering the brain’s chemistry. Many counseling and medication-based therapies can be short term, especially if the cause of the disability can be addressed. However, if there is a biological component to the psychological disability, therapies may last for long periods of time, such as years or decades.
Psychologists study, assess, or treat the cognitive, emotional, social, behavioral, and mental processes of individuals or various groups of people. There are several different types of psychologists. For instance, a clinical psychologist might diagnose and treat someone with a psychological disability, while a rehabilitation psychologist works with physical therapists or special education teachers to improve the learning, physical therapy, or medial treatment of an individual. The job outlook for clinical, counseling, and school psychologists is expected to grow 14% from 2018 to 2028. Psychologists earned a median salary of $79,010 in 2018.
Invisible disabilities are some of the most difficult to address because they’re so easily missed, sometimes even by the people who have them. The symptoms may not be obvious, or the disability may not have a dramatically negative affect on a person’s life, or healthcare professionals might fail to recognize the disability’s existence. The causes of these disabilities can range from genetic to environmental or acquired origins. For example, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) may have environmental causes, although a person’s susceptibility to it might have a genetic component. Here are a few of them:
- Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)
- Chronic Fatigue Syndrome
- Generalized Anxiety and Panic Disorder
- Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
Someone with an invisible disability may need a wide range of treatments that can last any period of time and require various levels of intensity. Someone with PTSD may require years of therapy, although the amount of therapy may taper off over time. After a few months of counseling, an individual with an anxiety disorder could self-manage their anxiety to a point where they no longer need to see a clinical psychologist. But compare this with someone with Type 1 diabetes, who will take insulin and make regular visits to an endocrinologist for the rest of his or her life.
A registered nurse (RN) provides medical care directly to patients, as well as coordinates medical care by consulting with other medical professionals, such as surgeons and physicians. One of the key tasks RNs have is observing and assessing the condition of a patient and relaying this information to a more specialized professional, such as a medical doctor. Due to their constant direct interaction with patients, RNs are in a prime position to spot telltale signs of invisible disabilities, such as diabetes and certain psychological issues. Due to the booming demand for healthcare services, the job outlook for RNs is good. The Bureau of Labor Statistics anticipates that from 2018 to 2028, the number of nurses will grow by 12%, with a median salary of $71,730.
Exploring Careers in Disability Services
What deciding on whether to enter a career in disability services, it’s easy focus on providing direct assistance. While helping those with disabilities certainly can involve directly helping them to lead fulfilling and independent lives, there are many careers that provide indirect assistance, such as helping someone find gainful employment, learn new skills, or obtain an education. Let’s take a look at some of the more popular options with a big impact.
A social worker helps an individual or group of people tackle a problem or life challenge. This can include anything from dealing with a physical illness to emotional issues stemming from problems at home. Therefore, it should come as no surprise that social workers find plenty of opportunities to help those who face mental or physical disabilities. This assistance is varied and can include tasks such as advocating on behalf of the interests of disabled individuals or assessing the needs of those with disabilities, including their family members or other caretakers. Social workers can also provide significant emotional support.
Mental Health Social Worker
The field of social work is extremely diverse, with professionals focusing on specific areas, including education, family relationships, healthcare, children, and victims of abuse. Mental health social workers can help someone with a medical or psychological disability in at least two possible ways. First, they can work directly with individuals who have emotional or psychological disabilities. If they are clinical social workers, this can include the diagnosis and treatment of behavioral and emotional problems. Second, mental health social workers can help those who might be close to someone with a disability but are having trouble coping, such as a primary caregiver.
A healthcare coordinator (sometimes referred to as a medial or health services manager) arranges the efficient and effective delivery of healthcare services. Healthcare coordinators take a more administrative role in assisting someone with a mental or medical disability. While this care may be indirect, it will still make a huge difference in a disabled patient’s well-being and level of care. For example, a healthcare coordinator might hire and manage healthcare providers that work directly with a disabled patient. Or the healthcare coordinator finds ways to boost the efficiency of medical services providers, allowing for lower healthcare costs and a greater amount of available treatment regimens to choose from.
Therapists do what the name suggests – they provide various types of therapies that impart positive benefits for patient or clients. One specific type that might spend a lot of time working with someone with a disability is a recreational therapist. These highly skilled professionals treat patients who have a variety of physical disabilities. A recreational therapist can spend time helping someone with a disability learn to take care of themselves by utilizing recreation-based therapies, such as crafts, music, and games. This type of treatment is particularly helpful when treating children with disabilities.
Nurse Consultant – RN
A registered nurse consultant is a unique position in that they serve a more facilitative role when it comes to the care a person with a disability might receive. While direct care is possible, a registered nurse consultant focuses more on coordinating care between the direct healthcare service providers and those in administration and management. For example, a registered nurse consultant will visit patients who might have a developmental disability and assess the patient’s progress, then coordinate with other medical professional and members of administration to decide if the current treatment plan should be continued or modified.
An employment specialist works with prospective and current employees to help them obtain the education, knowledge, and skills necessary to find a new career or make the most of a current career. An employment specialist can help someone with a disability by providing an evaluation of that individual’s level of employability, then deciding what education or training programs they should obtain to make the most of their professional goals. Employment specialists may also deliver the occupational and training programs for a current or future employee who has a disability.
Home Health Aide
Home health aides work with sick or disabled individuals who need help with their day-to-day living activities within their own home. When it comes to providing this hands-on help, home health aides are at the frontline. The can find themselves engaging in home activities that someone without a disability may take for granted, such as making meals, bathing, doing dishes, taking medications, and shopping. Home health aides can also teach someone with a disability how to accomplish these tasks so they may obtain a more independent form of living.
Interview: Working in Disability Services
Ben Barrett is a social worker who supports adults with mental illness. Ben has a dual bachelor degree in psychology and Spanish language and literature from North Carolina State University and a Master of Social Work from Western Michigan University. He gives back by contributing to his web site The How to Social Worker (www.thehowtosocialworker.com).
Tell us a bit about your story. Why did you choose your particular line of work?
I did not anticipate entering into the social work field. Following college, I found it very difficult to find work around my school, so I moved back to Michigan. This gave me the opportunity to begin working in vocational rehabilitation with adults who have mental illness. This was not a choice at the time so much as a job. However, it really gave me fulfillment, and I moved into case management at the local Community Mental Health serving adults. As I’ve continued to progress in my career, I’m certain that it is the best line of work for me.
What do you feel is the most important yet overlooked aspect of disability services?
One of the most important and overlooked aspects of working with disability services is that progress is not always linear and sometimes very slow. There are some achievements that, to an outside party, may appear really small and not meaningful. However, it may be a years-in-progress success to that client. Walking with those trying to overcome their disabilities can be very tiresome and mentally draining; it also is not always smiles. So it can be easy to get burned out if this concept is not understood.
The most rewarding part of my job is seeing success and hearing thank you. When we can help someone live more independently and maintain a lifestyle that we often take for granted, the genuine feelings of happiness for our clientele is incredible. This is a feeling that cannot be replicated. It is one way that we can really keep our own professional selves moving forward.
Working with adults who have severe and persistent mental illness is very difficult work. Some of the more challenging situations are when a client is very symptomatic and is a danger to themselves or someone else. We are obligated to act and sometimes conduct actions against the person’s will, which is often hospitalization. There are some clients whose insight, whether it’s their first episode or more, has not improved with treatment. It takes a lot of strength to help those who do not feel like you’re helping them at all.
Could you tell us about one of your clients who overcame the odds and found a better life?
To tell this story, I obviously must change some facts and names to maintain privacy. However, one of my clients, who we will call Hannah, was stepped down to my level of care from our Assertive Community Treatment team. Hannah was a young mom who has a diagnosis of schizophrenia and struggled as well with addiction. Schizophrenia was not Hannah’s only disability. She also had a learning disability, which made some of our treatment approaches difficult to grasp. On top of this, she did not develop trusting relationships easily with caseworkers. It was her perception that case workers simply wanted to take her child away.
Through patience and continual engagement that met Hannah where she learned best, rapport was developed. She began to open up about some of her personal aspirations and about the addiction, which was known about by the team but not acknowledged by her. This relationship is what really allowed Hannah to seek help for her addiction, where she was able to maintain sobriety. One of the last contacts that I had with Hannah was helping her enroll into a local college to begin pursuing a career in healthcare. Had we not been persistent and engaged Hannah how she learns best, we would not have been successful in our support. We must be identified as an ally if we are going to be effective in bettering anyone’s life.
There are so many different ways you can help someone with disabilities. This can be through schools, clinics, community mental health centers, and so many more. My story is in working with adults with mental illness; however, the sky really is the limit if disability services interest you. If you’re concerned that you don’t have what it takes, my advice would be to volunteer and see where your heart is. School and experience on the job can teach you many of the practical skills; however, it cannot teach you empathy and care for others. So, if this is something you’re considering, it’s likely that you have at least some of the needed qualities.
Burnout in the field is a real thing. That means that self-care is super important and something you should set strict guidelines for yourself. You can’t pour from an empty glass; and it is not selfish to make sure you’re in good condition to help others.