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Raising the Bar in Rehab

Therapists with Disabilities

Published May 26, 2011 4:58 PM by

In this week's issue of ADVANCE for Physical Therapy & Rehab Medicine, Brian W. Ferrie wrote an inspiring article about a police officer who was shot in the head on duty, then later returned to school to become a physical therapist assistant. If you haven't read the full article yet, I highly recommend you do. It's a good reminder of the experiences we go through that motivate us to become part of the physical therapy profession.

The article elicits many debates about therapists working with their own handicaps. The ex-police officer had a bullet weave through four regions of his brain and although many areas healed, he was still left with a permanent vision deficit. While his personal story is quite inspirational, what would have happened if he had residual brain damage? Is it possible to practice physical therapy in those circumstances?

A few weeks ago, I injured my shoulder during a treatment session and was on light duty for two days as I was unable to complete my job with my injury. Had I worked in a setting other than acute care, I might have been able to continue working. Even in outpatient settings, therapists can accumulate multiple overuse injuries, like those associated with performing manual therapy techniques. But, working with an acute musculoskeletal injury is different from a chronic disability such as brain damage.

My fiance spends most of his day at work looking at a computer screen. Just last week, he renewed his health benefits and included more disability coverage than he had the previous year. He told me, "If for some reason I ever became blind, there is no way I could do my job." I understand what he meant. If I ever lost my vision, it would make my job incredibly difficult. Instead of observing posture, I would need to use my hands to feel a patient's presentation. Instead of watching for nonverbal behaviors during a session, I would need to ask my patients more questions about their tolerance to an intervention. I can't imagine completing a chart review or documenting a session if I wasn't able to see.

Now, I certainly don't have the Americans with Disabilities Act memorized, but my understanding is that accommodations could be made in most circumstances to allow employees to continue working in their field. I would hope so. I love my job and would want to keep working as a therapist regardless of any disabilities I may have in the future.


Thanks everybody for the kinds words. I'm happy the article has generated some discussion.

Brian Ferrie, Advance for PT May 31, 2011 11:31 AM
King of Prussia PA


Good clarification.  It's easier to slip from one persepctive to the next.  I remember a professor of mine constantly reminding my classmates and I to always use person-first vocabulary.  "The patient who has a fractured leg" is much more empowering than "the broken leg patient".    

Likewise, changing the questions to "Why wouldn't it be possible to practice therapy in those circumstances?" is more empowering to patients as well.  

Looking foward to reading your blog next week!

Lisa West May 29, 2011 8:54 PM


First, thank you for your response and the opportunity to dialogue.  That's where I learn!

I am sorry if my comments came off as judgmental.  Thank you for sharing that aspect so I can clarify my perspective.  As someone who can no longer safely practice some aspects of physical therapy because of medical mismanagement, I understand the price that is paid when a practitioner assumes incorrectly.  As such, I also understand there are some injuries that aren't compatible with some careers.  It is true that noone can know the sum of a person's life except that person.  But, my comment was really less about the people receiving disability and more about our responsibility in putting them there.  Rereading the post and comments, I can see where my point was obscured.

You made the statements, "While his personal story is quite inspirational, what would have happened if he had residual brain damage? Is it possible to practice physical therapy in those circumstances?"  I see that as coming from a "disabled" perspective.  I see the "physically-challenged" perspective asking, "Why wouldn't it be possible to practice physical therapy under those circumstances?"

I wrote a longer response and realized it would make a good blog post, so thanks for next week's topic!!  And thanks for the opportunity to dialogue!

Janey Goude May 28, 2011 10:00 PM

Janey-  Another interesting perspective.  I agree with you, that for many people even minor injuries/disabilities become cop-outs.  I see a lot of patients receiving disability income although they are completely independent with all mobility.  But, it's easy to judge, and we don't ever know a patient's entire story.  

Thanks for the insight!

Lisa West May 27, 2011 6:46 PM


You're right.  It was an outstanding article.  Amazing how both brothers changed from law enforcement to therapy occupations.  And I echo Dean's sentiments.  Nothing like a medical ordeal to give you valuable insight.  There is no substitute for living it.

I think that attitude is more disabling than any injury/physical impairment.  I have known people with similar disabilities to go on to walk very different paths.  One thrives as a successful professional while the other lives out a life on disability payments.  There are times when the best of attitudes is not enough to overcome life's blows.  But often, the disability is not the prevailing issue.  Take Joni Eareckson Tada - the woman paints with her mouth.  I know people with far lesser disabilities who are not nearly as productive.

As far as brain damage...there was an article a while back about a woman who suffered a head injury with residual brain dysfunction.  With months of therapy, determination, and compensatory tools, she came back to pursue her passion.

When I look at someone like Tada, the police officer turned therapy assistant in this article, or the lady with the brain dysfunction, I wonder if our society has adopted disability as a cop out.

Janey Goude May 27, 2011 3:19 AM

Dean- Thanks for the comment, that's a great perspective to also consider- how our disabilities can give us a better understanding of our patients.  I'm sure if we were able to personally experience effective treatment methods, we would become better therapists ourselves.  


Lisa West May 26, 2011 8:23 PM

I had a PT professor who had sustained multiple injuries due to a motorcycle accident nearly a decade before I came to know her. She was infamous in the region where I went to school. She taught from a wheelchair initially, by the time I knew her she was using a rollator and by the time I graduated she was device free for most of the day. She could be brilliant, horrible, insightful, biased, judgemental and open all in about 5 minutes time. However she was consistently an inspiration and a reminder, constant reminder, of what our patients must go through.

I didn't really understand back pain until I herniated a disk a decade ago. Now I'm a much better therapist for someone with back pain and a markedly better therapist at providing prevention interventions.

Our injuries and tribulations can actually make us better providers and teachers, if we can find a venue that welcomes that viewpoint.

Dean Metz May 26, 2011 5:15 PM

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