Disability services coordinator physical therapist

Disability Services Coordinator – Hannah Zhang

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This week’s non-clinical spotlight features a physical therapist who now works as a disability services coordinator (official title: access & campus equity services coordinator) at a university in Oregon.

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What is your full name and title at your current job?

Hannah Zhang, PT, DPT
Access & Campus Equity Services Coordinator* at Oregon Institute of Technology (Oregon Tech)

My job title was previously “Disability Services Coordinator”. Our department decided on a rename to minimize the stigma associated with the word “disability.”

Editor’s Note: We used the title Disability Services Coordinator for this article to help people find it more easily in a Google search 🙂

Where are you located? 

Klamath Falls, Oregon

Where did you go to PT school, and what year did you graduate?

Duke University, Class of 2016

What did you do when you first finished school, and for how long?

I moved from the Research Triangle to coastal North Carolina after graduation. Being in an underserved region, I worked primarily in SNFs with some PRN at the local regional hospital, which served the entire county of about 1,300 square miles, covering both inpatient and home health.

A bit over two years later, I had the opportunity to work at an outpatient clinic in the adjacent county, primarily working with patients with orthopedic and neurological conditions, and I stayed there for over a year before branching out to have my own mobile PT and wellness practice.

What prompted your venture into solo entrepreneurship?

A multitude of elements. My outpatient clinic had changed ownership multiple times while I was there. We had a few shuffles in clinic directors, and I had to cover several affiliated clinics for several months, after Hurricane Florence destroyed my original clinic in 2018.

While I am thankful that I still had a job during the re-building time, the shuffling around really disrupted the care I was providing to my patients, and I felt like I was on the bottom of a very confusing chain of commands. 

My patients were incredible, and would travel well over an hour to come and see me at whatever location I was assigned. I wanted my work to first focus on the person, rather than quarterly profit reports. 

When did you start your business?

The path to hell is paved with good intentions: I started my business in April, 2020.

What have been your favorite parts of your clinical job(s)?

While I was still in the clinic, I enjoyed the collaboration between treating therapists. We had a range of experience levels and specialties, and I learned a ton from everyone there. I had several students shadow me in the outpatient clinic, so it was great to learn from them as well as being their mentor. 

I loved the writing portion of my mobile business, even though the research that went into it took ages. I found that “scientific writing” doesn’t have to be boring, and even the most didactic topics can be relatable and humorous.

Much like breaking down scary-sounding medical verbiage into manageable pieces while I was still in the clinic, I really enjoyed making complex issues accessible to everyone.

What were your least favorite parts of each job? 

Oh man. Unrealistic productivity expectations in patient care, and the lack of work-life balance.

Productivity requirements In SNFs had steadily gone from 85% to 90%, which meant that by the time I took my lunch, I would already be at the margin of “failing” that expectation.

Then there’s the push to bill the highest RUG possible—this was before PDPM—so I felt like I was forcing some of my patients to participate at a level they were not appropriate for.

While I was in SNFs, the local hospital did discharges en masse on Fridays, so I would always be asked to stay late on a Friday to do all the evaluations. I never felt like I had much control over my schedule, and I would have half days on Monday and Tuesdays as my workload was diverted to my PTAs, then go from 8am to almost 7pm on Fridays.

In outpatient ortho, there was definitely better structure to my schedule, but I felt like I was always supposed to be upbeat and “on” all the time, to put on a cheerful customer-facing image, regardless of what happened behind the scenes.

There was also the typical last-minute scheduling without any notice, and I would have to cram-review a patient’s chart in the single minute before they walked in the door. There were many days I would hardly have time to use the restroom or eat a square meal.

As far as being my own boss, especially when I was getting started, the hardest thing was not having enough workload to delegate to another person, but definitely having too much to do everything myself.  

What are some resources you would recommend from your roles thus far?

For entrepreneurs trying to do all the things, I would definitely recommend the book THE ONE THING by Gary Keller and Jay Papasan. It provides a manageable outline for organizing long-term, medium-term, short-term, and today’s-to-do goals.

I had been swamped with the magnitude of my to-do list, and was having a hard time knowing what to do first. The book was instrumental in getting my thoughts organized, and focusing on one important task at a time.

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Also, I highly, highly recommend my (then) local small business center, while I was trying to—you guessed it, do all the things—get my business off the ground. There are usually local chapters for each community, usually affiliated with community colleges. Better yet, many of these programs are funded through state taxes, so the resources are usually free, or have a small fee.

When it came to writing, I really enjoyed Therapy Blogging 101, Meredith Castin and Chanda Jothen’s course on healthcare blogging.

Therapy Blogging 101: Learn online entrepreneurship from the founders of The Non-Clinical PT and Pink Oatmeal!
Learn digital entrepreneurship from the founders of Pink Oatmeal and The Non-Clinical PT!

I still have to finish the last portion of the course, but the parts I have gone through are stellar in clarifying my message, and how to execute my thoughts effectively, all the while with an eye on SEO to make sure people can actually find my content.

When and why did you realize you wanted to do something non-clinical?

Despite all the hard work, having my own business was rewarding because I was able to treat my clients how I felt they deserved to be treated.

The whole process also clarified for me that I wanted to make a meaningful and systemic impact on our healthcare delivery model, so the one-on-one care that I firmly believe in won’t be hampered by the obstacles that are part of our current social and economical constructs. 

Are you still treating patients, or are you solely non-clinical?

I am solely non-clinical right now, though I still get the random “Help! I hurt [this body part]!” text once in a while from my former clients.

How have people reacted to you leaving patient care?

Mostly supportive. A lot of my clinical colleagues were cheering me on to take my non-clinical position.

Now, for your non-clinical role: how long have you been working as a disability services coordinator?

I started in April, 2021. I officially closed my one-woman show that same month.

How did you find your job? 

LinkedIn algorithm, actually.

I moved from North Carolina to southern Oregon at the end of 2020, and updated my LinkedIn profile to reflect my new location.

My current position came up as a good fit for my skill set. I applied in December, but the position was taken down to be updated—so I reapplied in February of 2021.

I had my interviews in March, and was offered the position at the end of March.

Did you do anything special to your resume and cover letter to land the job? 

I updated my resume and cover letter to highlight my experience working with people with disabilities, and my personalized approach to mentorship, both in higher education and in healthcare.

I drew parallels between helping my PT clients to reach independence in their plan of care, to my philosophy of not only providing accommodations to students with disabilities while they are in college, but also enabling them to advocate for themselves once they graduate. 

What was the interview like for the disability services coordinator role?  

I had two separate days of panel interviews: the first day with just my search committee, and the second day meeting with several more groups of folks in addition to my search committee.

I had to solve different scenarios where I might encounter conflict of interest, and how I would resolve scenarios involving complex interpersonal/relational conflicts.

Did you get any special certifications or training along the way to help you get into your current role?

Not at this time, although I am working my way through training headed by the Association on Higher Education and Disability (AHEAD) and its Oregon chapter, The Oregon Association of Higher Education and Disability (ORAHEAD).

What are you doing these days as a disability services coordinator?  

We have returned to fully in-person classes after two academic years of remote/in-person mix.

Right now, I am

  1. Interviewing incoming students
  2. Doing outreach to faculty, who are equally important to the success of the students
  3. Updating policies and protocols for our department
  4. Updating our website so folks can more easily find what they need

As part of higher-education, I am also involved in meetings and committees, whether it’s for student welcome week, interviewing prospective employees, or inter-departmental discussions. 

What are some of the challenges of your role? What are the rewards?

Higher education requires a completely different mentality from corporate healthcare work, and clinical productivity standards do not apply to my current work.

Some days I feel underproductive, because the turnaround time after I handed in my portion of a task, or after I submitted a request, can vary greatly due to other people’s schedules, or department approvals.  

That being said, I am really loving the actual one-on-one interactions I have with my students and colleagues, and I don’t have to feel guilty about taking the extra few minutes to really listen to someone’s concerns.

I love that I have the time to be fully present with my students and colleagues, and not worry about “tanking my productivity” while being genuinely human.

How do you think working as a PT prepared you for this role? Which skills transferred?  

Empathic listening, critical thinking, and diplomatic handling of sticky interpersonal situations. 

Also, flexibility and knowing what to prioritize, when tasked with eight things at the same time.

Roughly speaking, how are the hours and pay compared to patient care?

I took a hefty pay cut.

However, I am happily trading the improved work-life balance and mental health environment for a pay reduction.

In fact, my colleagues— some of whom I have never met—pooled their accrued PTOs to fully cover my medical leave in May 2021, so I am very thankful.

What type of person do you think would do well in your role?

A few things:

  • Someone who can read the fine print while keeping in mind the bigger picture
  • Someone who can be flexible to daily changes inherent to higher education
  • Someone who consistently maintains a balance between respecting faculty’s autonomy over their courses, with empathic advocacy for equitable education through reasonable accommodations
  • Someone who isn’t easily offended—since there will always be disgruntled folks who take out their frustrations on you—but can also own up to one’s mistakes and take accountability with grace

Honestly, a lot of qualities that make a good physical therapist are the crucial soft skills that make a good disability services advocate.

Do you work remotely or on-site?

We are fully in-person so far, pending public health guidelines. 

Is your employer hiring PT/OT/SLP/assistants? If so, what are some of the available positions?

While Oregon Tech isn’t specifically hiring therapists/assistants, we are doing a lot of hiring right now in general. Positions can be found here: https://jobs.oit.edu/postings/search

What would you recommend to someone who is considering going into a role like yours?

We have so many skills that are transferable, and it’s important to take a step back to look at your own assets beyond the confines of productivity, or what “makes you a good [rehabilitation] therapist.”

I had a hard time identifying my own assets after being told in my clinical jobs—implicitly or explicitly—that the expectations are always higher than my best efforts. 

A friend of mine mentioned that when applying for jobs, women (generally) feel like they have to match the job description 100% before they would apply, whereas men (generally) apply for any job they feel like they have a good shot at. Apply for a job with the mindset that you’ve already gotten the offer, and the confidence will carry through in your interview process.

Lastly, network. I hate it. But it must be done.

My introvert self was silently screaming all the while I was boldly cold-emailing any contacts I could find. Networking remains one of my least favorite things, but it is easier when I know my worth, so I can approach an unknown situation ready to bring something to the table. 

I am thankful for my North Carolina colleagues and folks in my APTA – NC Chapter. They helped me make connections all the way across the country, which led to contacts both in the APTA – OR Chapter, and at my (now) local hospital. Even though I was not looking for a clinical position at that time, it was a wonderful transition into my new community.

What would you like to change most in your profession, and why? How would you propose doing so?

For disability services:

The Americans with Disability Act is 31 years old, so I would like to see:

  1. More cohesive implementations of the ADA in higher education
  2. Better definition of “reasonable accommodation”
  3. More organized adaptations to remote delivery/learning
  4. Updating the language of the ADA in response to the evolving understanding of disability. Based on my experience in AHEAD and ORAHEAD, each higher education institution is implementing their own interpretation of the ADA (and its amendments), and while this allows for individual approach to a student’s accommodations, it can run into lots of confusion.

For rehabilitation professionals:

We need to better define—and quantify—how we rehab clinicians bring worth to the business of healthcare. While most of us get into this line of work because we genuinely care about people, the business of healthcare management doesn’t really care about individual gains, but how to save the most money.

When it comes to reimbursement dollars, the lowest bidder wins. We need to show—and not just anecdotally—that prevention saves big bucks out of intervention, and as rehabilitation and prevention experts, we should be valued more than where we currently stand.

From a physical therapy educational perspective:

We need to think about the reality of tuition vs. income, with the latter tied to reimbursement. We need better financial education and planning before we go into our doctoral programs, and definitely in tandem to our academic/clinical education.

It is very hard to be an empathetic healthcare provider for very long, when we have mortgage-sized debt coming out of school, while pay does not match the cost of living.

If you could give yourself one piece of career advice you wish you had during your PT school program, what would it be?

Pay better attention to your intuition, and speak up when things don’t feel right. Do more of what makes you lose track of time, rather than what you feel you “ought to do.”

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1 thought on “Disability Services Coordinator – Hannah Zhang”

  1. Thank you for sharing this and I totally admire and empathize with your journey. I am looking to also transition out of the clinic and you are an inspiration. Good luck in your new role!

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