Technical Standards Versus Essential Functions: Developing Disability-Friendly Policies for Nursing Programs

Technical Standards Versus Essential Functions: Developing Disability-Friendly Policies for Nursing Programs
by Martha Smith

What do technical standards mean for nursing?

Under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, schools can, in fact, have technical standards. Technical Standards are all the non-academic requirements a students must have/meet to enter a program. For most health sciences programs, there are usually a list of skills or experiences students must have prior to entry. Technical Standards cannot be written to exclude a class of people, including students with disabilities, and must have the “tag-line” “able to meet these requirements with or without a reasonable accommodation.” Most schools have difficulty writing good technical standards. They often use physical attributes as a skill, e.g, “must be able to talk to patients directly” versus “must be able to communicate effectively”. Also, technical standards should be written as the “what” of a skill, not the “how”, e.g., “must be able to gather vitals using variety of means” versus “must be able to hear a heart murmur through a stethoscope” (actually specifying how the task will be accomplished). Many technical standards are written based on skills that students will actually learn how to do in the program (e.g., “must be able to hear/detect a heart murmur through a stethoscope”). Because students will learn this skill in school, it is not a requirement for entering the program.

How are technical standards used in nursing programs?

Most institutions write technical standards on a page or two. Once students are admitted, they are asked to read and sign the technical standards page saying they can meet these requirements. Some schools ask all their students to have the page signed by their physician. If a school is a asking a particular student to “prove” they can, in fact, meet the technical standards, then they should be asking all the students to prove they can also meet the technical standards.

Do they write them for students already in a nursing program?

Yes. They should write them and give them to students up front so they know what to expect and what they will encounter but they are not used as admissions requirements.

What are some of the issues related to technical standards?

One of the big problems with technical standards is if you use them purely as admissions requirements how do you “test” folks (all folks) to make sure they can do all those things?

Where are some examples of technical standards for nursing?

What does the term “essential functions” mean for nursing?

“Essential functions” is a term used in employment, not education. The essential functions of a nurse are not the same, nor should they be, as the technical standards for a nursing student.

Smith, M. (2012).
Technical standards versus essential functions: Developing Disability-Friendly Policies for Nursing Programs, NOND FAQ Resources. NOND, Chicago, IL.

Disclaimer: The National Organization of Nurses with Disabilities (NOND) does not offer legal advice but NOND does offer resources to help you understand your rights, protections, and responsibilities within various Disability Rights Laws.

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