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How to Prepare for Employment After Spinal Cord Injury

woman preparing for employment after spinal cord injury

Employment after spinal cord injury is a unique process for everyone. While some people may be able to return to their old jobs, others may need to find new occupations. This article will help guide you through the process.

You’re about to learn how people with disabilities are protected in the workplace, and how disability works if you can’t go back to work.

In this article, you’ll discover which disability benefits you may qualify for and what your rights are as an SCI survivor. We hope this guide helps provide the reassurance you need to keep pushing forward.

When Should You Return to Work After Spinal Cord Injury?

There’s a positive correlation between employment and quality of life after spinal cord injury. Generally, SCI patients with jobs are more satisfied with their lives and more active than those who are unemployed.

However, it’s also important to take your time and be prepared before returning to work. Many SCI patients believe they’re ready to return to work after a couple of months, but this ambition should be tempered with a realistic look at recovery.

After a spinal cord injury, the body undergoes many changes and it takes time to learn how to manage them. For example, if you’ve lost bladder and bowel control, you want to make sure that you’re prepared to deal with it when you’re at work to avoid accidents. This can involve implementing a bowel program, setting an alarm to empty your catheter, and watching your food and fluid intake.

Spinal cord injury patients can improve their outlook with employment by participating in occupational therapy. Occupational therapists are trained to help ease the transition back to everyday life, which for many people includes returning to work. They’ll help you understand your employment rights and how to manage your complications.

In the next section, we’ll review how to receive social security disability benefits.

How to Qualify for Social Security Disability Benefits

understanding employment after spinal cord injury

Spinal cord injury patients should apply for disability benefits immediately because it takes about 3-5 months to process an application. Typically, a social worker at your inpatient rehab facility should be able to help you get this process started.

According to the Social Security Blue Book (Section 1.04), to qualify for disability benefits, individuals must provide:

Evidence of nerve root compression characterized by neuro-anatomic distribution of pain, limitation of motion of the spine, motor loss (atrophy with associated muscle weakness or muscle weakness) accompanied by sensory or reflex loss and, if there is involvement of the lower back, positive straight-leg raising test (sitting and supine).

The social security administration (SSA) considers the severity of your impairment and your ability to perform work in regards to your age, level of education, and work experience.

If you get approved for disability benefits, it’s important to keep in mind that they usually don’t begin until the 6th month following your injury. Likewise, if you get denied disability benefits, you can appeal the decision within 60 days.

After spinal cord injury patients start receiving SSDI benefits, they may start to consider employment. Up next, we’ll discuss how the SSA can help support SCI patients as they try to return to work.

Social Security Incentives to Return to Work After Spinal Cord Injury

Ticket to Work is a free social security program that can help spinal cord injury patients between the ages of 18-64 pursue employment. It provides a safety net for spinal cord injury patients to test out the prospect of employment without fear of losing their SSDI benefits.

Ticket to Work is available in all 50 states. SCI patients can get the employment support they need from a state vocational rehabilitation agency or another approved provider of their choice.

Social security incentives to return to work after spinal cord injury include:

  • Trial Work Period (TWP): The TWP allows spinal cord injury patients to test their ability to work for at least 9 months. Individuals will receive full SSDI benefits as long as they report their work activity.
  • Extended Period of Eligibility (EPE): EPE begins the month after the TWP, even if you’re not working that month. The SSA will review your earnings to determine if you are able to maintain substantial gainful activity (SGA). If your earnings remain below the SGA amount, then benefits will continue. However, any months where your earnings are above the SGA amount, SSA can suspend benefits.
  • Expedited Reinstatement (EXR): If a spinal cord injury patient becomes unable to work again within 5 years after their EPE ends, they can request reinstatement of SSDI benefits without filing a new application.
  • Continuation of Medicare Coverage: After the TWP ends, Medicare coverage will continue for 93 consecutive months.

Now that you understand that your social security benefits won’t be jeopardized for pursuing employment after spinal cord injury, let’s discuss your workplace rights.

Understanding Your Employment Rights After Spinal Cord Injury

spinal cord injury patient returning to work

The Americans with Disabilities Act prohibits employers from discriminating against people with disabilities. It applies to employers with 15 or more employees; however, some states may have additional laws that apply to employees with 15 or fewer employees.

Employers must make reasonable accommodations to help individuals with disabilities succeed in the workplace.

Examples of reasonable accommodations include:

  • Adjusting the workspace so that it’s wheelchair-friendly
  • Providing an accessible parking spot
  • Allowing a more flexible schedule
  • Providing ergonomic and adaptive equipment

Your employers want you to succeed, so don’t hesitate to request accommodations. They will improve your work performance, which in return, will benefit your employer.

Finding New Employment After Spinal Cord Injury

Some jobs are very physical and, even with accommodations, may not be safe or realistic for someone with SCI.

In such cases, you may need to start searching for a new career. Consider meeting with your current employer and asking about other positions within the company that you might be a good candidate for.

If you need to completely start from scratch, seek a vocational rehabilitation program to help assess your skills, provide helpful resources, and present potential job opportunities.

Understanding Employment After Spinal Cord Injury

Employment can help restore a sense of normalcy after a traumatic event like spinal cord injury. However, your health and wellbeing are much more important than returning to work, so take your time.

Hopefully, this article helped you better understand what to expect as you pursue employment after a spinal cord injury. For more inspiration, read about SCI survivor Josh’s employment journey.

Photos from top to bottom: iStock/LightFieldStudios/vadimguzhva

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