Removing Challenges for Those With Disabilities
By Maureen Blaney Flietner
More than 33 years after the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) became law, “reasonable accommodations” has become a byword in most sectors. But awareness, empathy, and support are still needed to overcome many challenges, including in the veterinary profession.
“Students still encounter discrimination, prejudice, and challenges from the admission process through employment. Unfortunately, some individuals close their minds and hearts . . . instead of having an open mind, asking questions, and having a positive attitude,” said Danielle N. Rastetter, DVM, medical director and owner of Pets In Stitches, a surgery and dental care clinic in Miamisburg, Ohio.
It’s been more than two decades since Rastetter, who is deaf, graduated from The Ohio State University College of Veterinary Medicine (OSU-CVM). Back then, she used an assistive learning device, front row seating, and studied in advance since she could not rely on being able to both process new information at the time relayed and invest the energy needed to understand speech.
One professor, however, continued to ignore her need for him to stand in front of the class to facilitate speech reading and comprehension. She finally had to contact the dean of students to have him comply. Fortunately, other professors were helpful, even offering creative ways to assist her.
When Rastetter first looked for employment, she knew her deafness would be a factor. Her first employer—George Myers, DVM, at Danvers Animal Hospital in Massachusetts—confirmed that years later. She said he told her he had to seriously consider how her deafness would impact her ability to practice medicine, his staff, and his clients. Even a colleague had discouraged him from hiring her.
“Thankfully, he offered me an associate veterinarian position and helped positively shape my practice of veterinary medicine. Later employment was often found with colleagues that knew me ahead of time (thus understood my deafness) or were of a more liberal and accepting worldview to begin with.”
On her way to becoming a veterinary technician, Tracey D’Imperio-Lasslett, CVT, CWR, also ran into prejudice. After taking a basic skills test and scoring the highest in a group of hearing and deaf students, test organizers insisted she must have cheated and wanted her to retake the test. She told them she would if every hearing person did as well. The issue was dropped.
She also found that the American Sign Language (ASL) interpreters available did not understand enough about veterinary science and had to create signs for words they didn’t know. Fortunately, D’Imperio-Lasslett came under the wings of Margi Sirois, EdD, CVT, and others who found a way for her to succeed if she put in the work. She now teaches in the veterinary technician program at Northampton Community College, Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, is an adjunct instructor for Penn Foster College, and is a mentor for deaf and hard-of-hearing students.
Accommodations Are Key
On the path to his career, Aaron Railey, an emergency and surgical veterinary assistant who began losing his hearing in second grade, found it challenging to communicate with his peers and to not be able to use a stethoscope. He encountered people who would forget that he was deaf and get mad at him for not comprehending.
Railey also discovered that the claim of “reasonable accommodations” does not necessarily mean that they will be provided. Money might not be available, the person might just not be allowed to perform the task they were hired for, or the employee might have to pay for the accommodation themselves, he said.
Fortunately, early on, he found a veterinarian who would talk with him about cases before procedures and establish a game plan so they were both on the same page.
“Doing this allows me to not have to worry about communication barriers—face masks or loud noises. This was also the same practice that gifted me an older, used, ‘if-you-can-get-it-to-work’ (I did!) digital stethoscope while I was still in school,” he noted.
“Later in my career, I received my first new digital stethoscope from a corporate veterinary facility. The practice manager where I was assigned asked ‘What can I do to make your time here more successful?’ That alone gave me hope in my future as a deaf veterinary technician.”
Railey said his current job has helped him find the best-fit service to not only connect with but maximize opportunities to use his skillset.
“Thankfully I work in a team that is understanding and supportive from the front desk to the surgery department that I work in,” he explained. For him, “support” includes facing him when speaking, ensuring that he completely understands what was said or, even better, learning basic sign language. Masks still are a challenge, but the medical director has arranged for BendShape masks, which have a clear window, so no communication is lost.
Railey noted that he is particularly happy to work with one surgeon who understands his struggles and is always reassuring. At times, he may need someone to repeat a request or question, and his colleagues usually oblige without a problem. Having the right accommodations and support system, he explained, can allow someone with a disability to thrive.
Brittany Nitzband said she started her veterinary career in 2014 “with two legs as a receptionist” and then cross-trained to the back. However, a motorcycle wreck resulted in the amputation of her right leg below the knee, two fractured vertebrae, and a shattered clavicle.
Was that the end of her veterinary work? No. After recovery and getting a prosthetic leg, Nitzband interviewed with Jamie Rauscher, LVT, medical manager for Animal Hospital of Towne Lake/Cat Clinic of Woodstock, Georgia.
“I had no idea she was an amputee,” said Rauscher. “She actually brought it up herself at the end of her interview, asking if it would be an issue to work at our clinic with a prosthetic/amputated limb. I told her absolutely not.”
The only accommodation that Nitzband said she has needed is an occasional extra pair of hands for the bigger breeds—“they like to trip me.”
Deana Baker, CVT, recently retired from Lifetime Animal Hospital, Cody, Wyoming, where she worked since 1991. She was diagnosed with epilepsy as a child but, with modern medications, she rarely has seizures. She also has bipolar disorder. Her work accommodation needs were minimal, she explained: no blinking or flashing lights that might trigger a seizure and a work shift that kept her in a regular routine.
It was the understanding and support of her employers, the help of wonderful coworkers, as well as her commitment to her job and health that made her career a success.
Deana Baker, CVT
In the early years, she said, her health had its ups and down, including “being shipped off to psych hospitals.” But her job was always waiting for her when she returned. She credits her original employer Malcolm L. Blessing, DVM, and subsequent practice owner Becky Prior, DVM.
“I was honest from the start with them. I could trust them, and they knew that I was a valuable employee,” she said.
Different Experiences = Different Benefits
The experiences, perspectives, and adjustments that those with disabilities have had to make in their own lives can become benefits for the veterinary profession. Our sources offered a few examples:
- Railey said his reliance on his eyes and fingertips allows him to see things quicker and to feel things better than relying on only the use of a stethoscope. His knowledge of ASL also comes in handy for clients who use ASL too. Having someone who knows their primary language means they feel heard and minimizes miscommunications.
- With senses of smell and sight sharper and quicker than many, D’Imperio-Lasslett said she can smell infection faster and more quickly determine an animal’s demeanor.
- Baker said she could share with clients worried about what their dogs feel during seizures from what she has experienced.
- If the hospital has a biter, Nitzband said she can “just stick my prosthetic out and the dog will bite that. It usually results in them being confused and not trying to bite anymore.”
- Rastetter said her empathy, creativity, and focus on “overcommunication” have the benefit of minimizing mistakes due to lack of communication. She encourages pet parents to ask for clarification and uses other methods—visual, hands-on, or experiential—to facilitate understanding.
Alex Flinkstrom, CVPM, practice manager at Lunenburg Veterinary Hospital, Lunenburg, Massachusetts, said he sees the veterinary profession becoming more inclusive and noted how “COVID helped open up possibilities and forced the industry to innovate.”
Flinkstrom said the hospital has a part-time employee who works remotely because of a back injury that prohibits activity for any length of time.
“Instead of terminating the employee, we created a remote position and purchased a laptop and remote access software back in 2017—before remote was ‘a thing’—so the employee can work from home and fulfill duties. It has been mutually beneficial as the hospital has been able to retain a loyal employee.”
Lunenburg also has an employee with formally diagnosed dyslexia. But with checks in place for all staff, there are very few errors, if any, he explained.
Having been a hospital manager and now someone with a disability, Leah Parris, CVPM, RVT, CCFP, HABc, understands the legal requirements as well as “the need to show employees you care about their wellbeing and safety.”
In February 2023, she was diagnosed with thyroid cancer—“after 17 years of not taking PPE seriously”—and needed a thyroidectomy and radioactive iodine treatment.
But returning to being a full-time practice manager with a need for 24/7 availability wasn’t going to happen. After her treatment, she had a limited ability to assist, particularly with veterinary technician duties since she couldn’t risk getting an infection from a bite or scratch. In addition, she said, she also had burnout and compassion fatigue.
While she had made accommodations for many others, she also knew that sometimes adjustments for a particular job just wouldn’t work. But a different job could be the solution.
Since the veterinary profession is her passion, she decided to open Southern Meridian Veterinary Consulting, a practice management consulting, coaching, and relief coverage business, in Gainesville, Georgia. While she still has health struggles, she said she is now able to experience better work-life harmony.
Molly Lautzenheiser, CVPM, MAPPCP, BSBA, SHRM-CP, CCFP, hospital administrator and partner in Avon Lake Animal Clinic, Avon Lake, Ohio, said that her practice has employed many with a disability or chronic condition.
Consider these tips
Our sources shared these tips for those with disabilities pursing an education or career in the veterinary profession:
|Be proactive. Advocate for yourself.
|If hard of hearing or deaf, become involved in the Association of Medical Professionals with Hearing Losses (amphl.org).
|Work with your doctor and follow prescribed regimens. If something is not working, tell your doctor you need a Plan B.
|Cultivate relationships including with non–veterinary medicine professionals.
|Engage with all resources available: mentors, disability offices, human resources, and technology.
|Reach out to job coaches, such as the Job Accommodation Network (askhan.org), for guidance and support.
|Connect with others with similar disabilities and career choices through social media. You are not alone.
|Take time for your mental health and don’t be afraid to ask for help.
|Know your rights under disability laws in your region.
|Communicate with employers about your needs and accommodations.
|Find advocates and mentors. They can be critical to success.
“Most recently we have worked with employees who have had job coaches help them not only during the interview process but while they perform job functions, checking in with department managers regarding performance. It has been a very positive experience. For those with chronic conditions, we have found that simple schedule alterations or allowing more frequent seated breaks have made a major impact on their ability to successfully perform their jobs.
“We also have altered some positions to be semiremote—setting team members up with home offices and phone lines that link to our system. For in-clinic working hours, we have set up private spaces and altered schedules to slower business hours to accommodate those at higher risk of contracting contagious diseases.”
Lautzenheiser said she finds the veterinary community to be very accepting, noting that “there is such a wide variety of opportunities for placement that many disabilities or chronic conditions can be accommodated with minimal effort or adjustment to operations.”
She encouraged hospital managers to “think outside the box. Altering the way the job is performed or the duties of the position in small ways can sometimes make a big difference," Lautzenheiser said.
Cody J. Waldrop, CVPM, SHRM-CP, practice management officer for Associated Veterinary Partners, said he has hired individuals with disabilities or chronic conditions and provided such accommodations as flexible work hours, ergonomic adjustments, and assistive technologies for an inclusive, supportive workplace environment.
“The veterinary profession is increasingly recognizing the importance of inclusivity and diversity. While progress has been made, challenges and biases still exist. It’s essential to continue advocating for equal opportunities in the field.”
Molly Lautzenheiser, CVPM, MAPPCP, BSBA, SHRM-CP, CCFP
In Rastetter’s work with OSU-CVM’s admission committee, which reviews applications for advancement to interviews, she said she believes more can be done to reduce barriers.
Some life challenges (financial, disability, racial, personal, etc.) can count against a veterinary school application that negates even implicit bias training, she explained. In addition, the technical standards for veterinary school admissions and employment are still a problem. She noted that “the outcome of the task should be the focus, not how the task is completed.”
At the American Association of Veterinary Medical Colleges, Lisa M. Greenhill, MPA, EdD, chief diversity officer and senior director for institutional research, said the AAVMC is committed to advancing and supporting disabled students and colleagues.
“We have featured the topic several times on AAVMC’s Diversity & Inclusion On Air podcasts and featured Academic Ableism by Jay Dolmage, PhD, University of Waterloo, Ontario, Canada, as the first book in our AAVMC Reads program. Dolmage also was our keynote speaker at our Catalyze 2021 conference.”
AAVMC recently rolled out “an exemplar for technical competencies, which may be achieved with accommodations, as are needed to successfully matriculate,” said Greenhill. It’s critical information for preveterinary students and applicants, she noted, and the final document is expected to be released soon.
Maureen Blaney Flietner is an award-winning writer and illustrator living in Wisconsin.
Photo credits: ©AAHA/Alison Silverman, Roi and Roi/iStock via Getty Images Plus