Medical Assisting Career Options for those with a Disability

Having a disability should not be a barrier to training to become a medical assistant. Discrimination against people with disabilities is prohibited in federal law by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). According to the National Organization of Nurses with Disabilities only approximately 20% of Americans with a disability are employed in the traditional workforce and that the unemployment rate among disabled people in 12.9%, but of those that are employed, a large percentage work in the healthcare industry.

Partly because of the aging population and associated increase in healthcare needs, the number of jobs in the healthcare industry has grown rapidly over the last decade. As a result, many new medical assisting jobs are expected to be created over the coming years in doctors’ offices and other medical facilities offering patient care, which could be performed by people with disabilities.

The US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission reports that workers in the healthcare industry have a high incidence of injury and illness and medical assistants are likely to encounter a number of workplace hazards while performing their duties, such as exposure to infectious diseases, injuries from sharps, back injuries and latex allergy. Medical assisting can be a mentally stressful and physically challenging career.  However, it can also be a very rewarding profession to work in.

A general medical assistant role will include both administrative and clinical duties. Administrative and clerical tasks to be performed include welcoming patients, scheduling appointments, answering phones, completing insurance forms, filing and updating patient records. Clinical duties include preparing examination rooms and preparing patients for examinations, scheduling and reporting lab work, ordering medication and maintaining inventories.

The physical demands of a medical assisting job typically consist of frequently sitting; using hands to finger, handle, or feel; reaching with hands and arms; talking and hearing. On occasion a medical assistant may be required to climb or balance. On a regular basis a medical assistant may be required to lift or move up to 10 pounds. Vision abilities required to perform the essential functions typically include close and distance vision, color and peripheral vision, depth perception and the ability to adjust focus.

A disabled person wanting to train to become a medical assistant will need to research degree, diploma and certificate programs to find one that meets their needs. It is important to choose an accredited training program that enables graduates to take the AAMA or RMA certification exam if they wish too. It is not a requirement for medical assistants to be certified, but many employers prefer to hire applicants with this credential. Financial aid may be available in the form of loans, grants and scholarships. There are numerous disability scholarships on offer including our own healthcare scholarship.

When researching programs and schools, disabled students need to check that they meet the curriculum requirements. For instance, medical assistants should possess capabilities and abilities in key areas that are essential for providing competent patient care: professionalism, communication, motor, sensory, problem solving and behavioral skills. Schools have to make reasonable accommodations for disabilities, but medical assisting students must be able to perform in all these key areas independently, without the use of a trained intermediary.

Examples of essential functions that medical assistants need to be able to perform include:

  • Passing a cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) course
  • Applying universal precautions such as hand washing and applying mask, gown and gloves
  • Providing sufficient physical support to safely assist patients in moving
  • Performing clinical treatment activities

Under the ADA, a medical assistant is an individual with a disability when he or she has a physical or  mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities; has a record of a substantially limiting impairment; or is regarded as having a substantially limiting impairment. For example, a medical assistant with multiple sclerosis may have recurrent flare-ups where they need to use a wheelchair because they are substantially limited in walking and standing during the flare-up.

Under the ADA, a medical assistant is deemed to be “qualified” to perform a job if they satisfy the skill, experience, education and other requirements of the position, and are able to perform the basic job duties or “essential functions” with or without a reasonable accommodation.

Medical assistant jobs can be found on websites such as Getting Hired and HireDS that aim to connect disabled people with employers looking to hire. At an interview for a medical assisting job, an employer is not allowed to ask any disability-related questions, but is allowed to ask about an applicant’s ability to perform job related functions.

An employer could exclude a disabled applicant from a medical assisting position if they would pose a “direct threat” to the health and safety of themselves or others in the workplace and this risk of harm cannot be reduced through reasonable accommodation. If a medical assistant is excluded from a position due to a disability, it must be due to a job-related requirement and consistent with business necessity.  An employer needs to be sure that the job requirement that excludes someone with a disability accurately predicts that person’s ability to perform the job’s essential functions.

A medical assistant with a disability has the right to request “reasonable accommodation”, that is a change or changes to work due to a medical condition, which will effectively allow them to perform their duties to the same level as a non-disabled employee. Reasonable accommodation includes:

  • Changes to workplace facilities to make them accessible, such as the toilet room and parking lot
  • Acquiring or modifying equipment or devices, such as providing a phone headset
  • Job restructuring, part-time work or schedule change
  • Use of accrued paid leave or unpaid leave, for example to get medical treatment or be fitted for a new wheelchair
  • Modifying policies, such as the break schedule

To conclude, many people with a disability are able to perform the essential functions of a medical assisting job and this is an occupation with a growing demand. When choosing a medical assistant training program, it is important to select an accredited program and to meet the curriculum requirements. Students should find out whether they can get financial help for their education from a disability scholarship. Disabled people should know their rights regarding employment and should ask their employer for reasonable accommodations that enable them to perform their duties as a medical assistant.