A Beginner's Guide to RA: Back to School

Patient Expert

When your RA starts to affect your ability to do your job, it can be terrifying, persuading you that your ability to lead a "normal" life is close to over. It doesn't have to be. Retraining and education can help you find a new career, a new life.

Education is never a bad idea, but it can be particularly important for people living with a chronic illness that can affect mobility and strength, like rheumatoid arthritis. The more education you have, the more choices you have and the more likely it is that your job will be done mostly in your head, instead of involving physical ability. It is easier to modify the physical aspects of such jobs through flexible work hours, working from home, using various assistive computer programs (like e.g., voice recognition) and others. They can greatly extend your ability to continue working in a meaningful career.

Where Do I Go Now?
Whether you are a teenager looking for career or an adult looking to change your job, the first step is to decide what you want to do. This isn't always easy, especially when it includes taking a look at your physical limitations and working through your feelings about having limitations. However, once you've adjusted to taking paratrooper, trapeze artist and underwater welder off the list, there are still so many options that trying to figure out in which direction you want to go can be so overwhelming to the point of paralysis. How do you know what you'd be good at?

There are resources available to help you zero in on your future, including career counselors and vocational testing, but a more low-tech (and cheaper) option is to hit the library or a bookstore. In her book I'd Rather Be Working: a Step-By-Step Guide to Financial Self-Support Review with Chronic Illness, Gayle Backstrom guides you through a three-step process she calls Rethink, Refocus, Retrain on your way to discovering what you want to do (look for my review of this book and an interview with the author coming soon). What Color Is Your Parachute? 2009: a Practical Manual for Job Hunters and Career Changers offers exercises to reveal your personality, your talents and your passion, giving you a deeper understanding of where you'd like to go in your career and how to get there. As well, if you're working in a larger company, you may also want to take a look at job openings posted in the Human Resources department to get an idea of which types of jobs are available in your organization that you could pursue.

How Do I Get There?
When you have an idea about which field to pursue training or education, your next step is to find a program or school and the funding to pay for the course(s). If you're a veteran, contact your local Veteran Affairs Office for information on and help with vocational rehabilitation training. If you haven't served in the Armed Forces, you may qualify for a scholarship or your employer may offer tuition reimbursement programs. Your employer may also be able to offer training that will enable you to move from your present job to another one in the same company. And lastly, if you are on Social Security for your disability, you are eligible to apply for vocational rehabilitation which offers guidance and financial support (for a list of FAQs about this program, click here).

How Do I Get Help Once I'm There?
Educational programs such as colleges and universities that receive federal financial assistance are prohibited by law to discriminate against people with disabilities. This means that there are programs and services in place to help accommodate your RA by modifying parts of the courses and program. Contact the school's disability coordinator to discuss the ways in which the courses can be modified to help you. For instance, you may be able to enroll in the program on a reduced courseload, which can help people with chronic pain and fatigue to succeed rather than to burn out by doing too much. You may also have access to notetakers, be given more time to complete exams and the use of voice recognition software at no cost to you -- the educational institution may fund such aids and services themselves or help you get reimbursed through vocational rehabilitation. The Office for Civil Rights of the Department of Education has a transition guide for high school students with disabilities planning post-secondary education, and it's helpful for people of any age who are thinking of going to college and university. It will help you prepare for such a program by giving you information on your rights, suggestions for preparatory courses and skill development and more detail on the services available.

RA takes and sometimes it gives -- in taking your ability to do your current job, it may give you the opportunity for another career. Who knows... it may even lead you to a new dream and change your life in ways you'd never thought possible.

You can read more of Lene's writing on The Seated View.