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Returning to Work After an Injury

October 30, 2019

Each year millions of American workers experience an injury or illness that puts them at risk of leaving the workforce. However, many injured or ill workers who are at risk of becoming unemployed could remain in their jobs or field if they receive timely and effective help. Craig's Community Reintegration Program and other vocational programs provide early action and coordination between workers who are injured, employers and healthcare providers to help people return to meaningful work they had access to before their injury or illness.

Why is Work Important?

You may not often consider how important work is to our physical, emotional and social identities until you think about how many of our conversations, relationships and time investments revolve around our work. Practically, it provides money for financial stability and security and also gives us opportunities for socialization and a means to establish relationships. But work often also provides us with purpose, a reason to get up in the morning, an opportunity to contribute to something and a core part of our identity.

"Returning to work is a goal for so many of our patients since it is a piece of their identity they would like to get back after injury," CR Specialist Hayley Medina, MS, OTR/L says. "Working in the Community Reintegration Program allows me to help support each patient along the way by providing guidance, assistance and resources to help individuals achieve their work goal. I have the opportunity see the end result of people getting back into the community, which is the ultimate reward."

Working After a Disability

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor, 74% of people who are 16-64 without a disability are employed in the U.S. And only 30.4%of people who are 16-64 and have a disability are employed. However, studies show that the vast majority of people who have a disability and are unemployed want to work, but there are barriers after a life-altering injury or illness.

Craig's Community Reintegration Program focuses on getting people back to their lives after a spinal cord or brain injury. The team helps patients determine what they will do beyond their therapy at Craig. That often includes entry or reentry to college, volunteering and returning to work.

The CR team's work includes:

  • Coordinating with employers to understand the critical job duties patients need to return to work.
  • Working with HR departments to manage benefits and crucial timelines.
  • Visiting work sites to identify challenges in the environment; noting office setup needs, pace of job duties, and addressing barriers such as physical space needs related to accessing the work environment.
  • Creating work tasks and simulating work activities to help determine work readiness and tolerance.
  • Practicing strategies such as using assistive technology to return to previous or new work tasks.
  • Collaborating with a patient and their medial team to determine and communicate any restrictions and accommodations.
  • Follow-up to promote problem solving any issues that arise after returning to work.
  • Helping identify and prepare patients for different career paths if they are no longer able to return to their former position.

"Being in my position in Community Reintegration provides me a constant reminder of how essential and significant employment is for everyone," CR Specialist Casey Pfister, MS, OTR/L says. "It has been very rewarding to see what people can achieve with a lot of tenacity and a little support."

Resources for Employers

Employers can become discouraged believing that accommodating an employee with a disability will be costly. Truth is, many job accommodations cost very little and often involve minor changes to a work environment, schedule or work-related technologies. The Job Accommodation Network (JAN) is a workplace accommodation website that provides specific resources for people with disabilities, employers and health providers. A study by JAN showed that more than 50% of accommodations are either free or range from $500-$600.

Among the many benefits of employing people with disabilities are:

  • Service industries that employ people with disabilities are more likely to be disability-aware in their dealings with the wider public.
  • People with disabilities are reliable employees and have an overall higher job retention rate.
  • Workers with disabilities bring unique sets of skills and perspectives to the workplace that enhance the strength and diversity of the U.S. labor market.

More resources for employers:

Resources for People Returning to Work After a Disability

Returning to work after a life-altering injury can be intimidating. Our Community Reintegration staff often see the different kinds of barriers that our patient population face when beginning the process of returning to their former job or a new job and can offer advice and tools to help overcome these obstacles.


  • Work with your employer to create an ideal work schedule
    • Reduced hours
    • Build up tolerance over time
  • Incorporate appropriate breaks into your work day.
    • Additional or extended breaks during the day to address self-care as well as physical and mental needs


  • Identify devices and/or accessibility accommodations needed in your workspace
    • Building and parking accessibility
    • Automatic door openers
    • Height-adjustable desks
    • Voice-activated and/or software systems and devices
    • Reconfiguring workspace layout


  • Gain independence with driving if appropriate modifications are in place
    • Craig's Adaptive Driving team works with our patients to help them identify the correct vehicle modifications they may need to make them independent with driving and assist with the medical clearance to return to driving.
  • Non-drivers
    • Public transportation
    • Bus system
    • Light rail
    • Uber/Lyft
  • Disability transportation services
    • Access-A-Ride

Resources for Coworkers

Some people may initially feel uncomfortable interacting with a coworker who returns to work with a disability but still want to be welcoming and supportive. Though your coworker may be grateful for your concern and support, they may also be experiencing some difficult adjustments during this time. Be patient and kind, but more importantly, be present – your coworker will appreciate your effort to connect with and listen to them. Here are a few etiquette tips that are based on common feedback we hear from our patients as they reenter their communities:

  • People-First Language: Words are powerful and can either bolster or change stigmas, assumptions and attitudes about people who have disabilities. A disability is only one part of a person's life and shouldn't define the primary way they are described. If it's necessary to speak or ask about someone's disability, consider using language that puts someone's identity as a person before their disability, such as "a person with a disability" rather than "a disabled person" or "a teacher with a spinal cord injury" instead of "a paraplegic teacher." Learn more about People-First Language here.
  • "My chair, my body": People who use a wheelchair, cane or walker often consider it an extension of their body. It is a part of their personal space and warrants being treated with same respect and dignity as their body.
  • "Can I help?": Always ask if you can offer help before you provide assistance. Don't assume someone requires help or that you should provide it.
  • "What happened to you?": How someone acquired their disability is often a very personal – and sometimes painful – topic. It's not considered polite to ask people how they acquired their disability, how they feel about it or other personal questions unless it is clear that they want to discuss it.
  • The Golden Rule: Remember that, in general, individuals with mobility impairments are not typically deaf, visually impaired or cognitively impaired and should be treated as you would want to be treated.
  • When in doubt, err on the side of common courtesy and respect: People who have disabilities deserve the same respect and dignity as you would expect for yourself, so just reach out with empathy and active listening and they'll appreciate your efforts to get to know them better!

Additional etiquette resources: