How to Champion Individuals With Disabilities Through Nursing Care
AREA OF FOCUS: disabilities
A single sentence from a 2009 article in the Journal of the American Medical Association made an indelible impression on Suzanne C. Smeltzer, EdD, RN, ANEF, FAAN. “It may have been a throwaway line, but it was profound for me: ‘Disability is a universal experience that will affect every single one of us without exception at some time in our lives,’” she recalls.
Dr. Smeltzer, the Richard and Marianne Kreider Endowed Professor in Nursing for Vulnerable Populations and evaluation coordinator, now dedicates her career to ensuring nurses will be able to care for the 60 million people living with disabilities in the US, as well as those who follow.
Dr. Smeltzer was inducted into Sigma’s 2019 International Nurse Researcher Hall of Fame in recognition of the impact of her research and advocacy for health care access and quality care for people with disabilities.
Toward that end, she was instrumental in the development of the Advancing Care Excellence series on disability (ACE.D). Created in collaboration with Villanova colleagues and the National League for Nursing, it provides vital information for nurses, nursing faculty and students, nationally and internationally, about caring for persons with disabilities. “The materials have been accessed from NLN’s website over 70,000 times in less than a year,” says Dr. Smeltzer.
“Caring for people with disabilities is not ‘specialty’ practice—it is general practice, for all health care professionals.”
Suzanne C. Smeltzer, EdD, RN, ANEF, FAAN
She also partnered with Elizabeth Blunt, PhD, RN, FNP-BC, the College’s clinical professor and coordinator of Nurse Practitioner Programs, to create an indispensable resource in the form of an informational toolkit for Villanova faculty, as well as nursing programs and faculty across the nation. Available online, it identifies a set of competencies necessary for working with persons with disabilities for both undergraduate students and nurse practitioners.
Such standardized competencies had not been established prior to this effort. Funded by a grant from the Health Resources and Services Administration, Dr. Smeltzer and Dr. Blunt worked with national experts and people with disabilities to put this toolkit together. Concise and precise, the toolkit offers curricular content that nursing faculty can integrate into existing curriculum and provides a detailed practice guide for NPs and RNs serving patients with disabilities.
In the course of her research, Dr. Smeltzer interviewed health care providers for pregnant women with disabilities. "I asked, ’Did you have any training to care for people with disabilities anywhere in your education?" she recalls. "Not a single person said ’yes.’" For Dr. Smeltzer, this experience further validated the need for the kind of resource they were creating.
That won’t be the case for Villanova Nursing graduates. Dr. Smeltzer and colleagues are seamlessly weaving education about people with disabilities into existing coursework. “We recruit people with disabilities and train them to be standardized patients in our simulation lab,” she says. “Students come into the lab for the usual simulation, but they have patients with real disabilities.” Students have reported that the experience was incredibly valuable.
“Caring for people with disabilities is not ‘specialty’ practice—it is general practice, for all health care professionals, in all disciplines and in all settings,” Dr. Smeltzer says. “Educators must make sure nurses know how to care for people with disabilities, because it’s going to be all of us.”