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December 6, 2010

Organization Helps Disabled Become MTs
By David Yeager
For The Record
Vol. 22  No. 22 P. 6
As bad as the job market is, it’s exponentially worse for people with disabilities. While the overall unemployment rate has hovered around 9% since May of last year, the rate of unemployment among people with disabilities averaged 15.6% in the third quarter. In fact, the National Institute for the Severely Handicapped, a nonprofit agency dedicated to creating job opportunities for people with severe disabilities, estimates that 70% of people with disabilities are unemployed.

Although people with disabilities are at a disadvantage when competing for jobs, there are some organizations that recognize the untapped resources this population represents.

“I think the population that we touch by employing people with disabilities is such a unique population and they’re often thought about as being unemployable. And, truly, if you can find their niche, they are employable and they are some of the best employees that I’ve ever worked with,” says Michelle Simone, director of medical transcription for National Telecommuting Institute (NTI), an organization that provides work-at-home opportunities for people with disabilities. “Not to knock nondisabled people, but sometimes the disabled folks have more of a drive because it’s harder for them to find a job, and they really want to do the best that they can.”

Aside from roughly 40 office-based workers who help run the organization, the rest of NTI’s 400-plus employees work from home throughout 48 states. Chief Operating Officer Alan Hubbard expects to have around 1,000 employees in place by the end of the year.

In recent years, the growing demand for accurate patient information has ensured there will be a need for quality medical transcriptionists (MTs). NTI has leveraged that demand to find jobs for people who may have had difficulty navigating traditional channels. Hubbard says the company provides the flexibility, physically and financially, that many people with disabilities require.

“A lot of them are on SSI [supplemental security income] or SSDI [Social Security disability insurance], so they’re getting around $1,000 a month,” says Hubbard. “And we enable them to earn an additional $1,000 to $1,640 a month without impacting their benefits. It doesn’t seem like a lot, but it gives them the opportunity to earn another $12,000 or more a year that they didn’t have before.”

New hires spend three to four days training on MedQuist’s DocQscribe platform and getting up to speed with their at-home office. It can take two to three months for MTs to become familiar with their assigned clients. The company also provides client-specific reference materials and supports the MT pool with two full-time and one part-time quality assurance (QA) specialists. MTs log in directly to the system using a dedicated login. From there, they use an individual password and company code to access the voice files. Once the files are transcribed and uploaded to DocQscribe, they are immediately removed from the respective MT’s computer. There is no paper involved.

In addition, because all NTI transcription work comes from the VA, each transcriptionist must pass a federal background check and a yearly test on HIPAA requirements. The VA contract also stipulates that all MTs must have at least two years of transcription experience, but the company is trying to attract small hospital and physician practice clients, which would allow them to hire MTs right out of transcription school. Hubbard hopes to have a commercial contract in place by the beginning of next year, which he estimates would allow the company to double the size of its 26-member transcription pool. The VA business has been good, though, and it’s one factor that attracted Nancy Van Sandt to NTI.

“I was interested in typing VA contracts,” she says. “I’m a big supporter of our military, and I felt like that would be a small way that I could contribute to making sure they have the documentation available to receive the care that they needed.”

NTI’s flexible scheduling also allows Van Sandt to work as a MedQuist subcontractor training visually impaired MTs. She uses JAWS (job access with speech) screen-reading software to work on the files, adding that some MTs now use editing programs with Braille displays. Even with these aids, Van Sandt says looking up medical terminology and the names of new drugs can be a challenge because not all online reference materials are available in a format easily accessible to the visually impaired. To fill in information gaps, she networks with other MTs as well as NTI’s QA staff.

Van Sandt is glad she found NTI. In her town of Arkansas City, Kan., jobs are scarce, especially for people with disabilities.

“In my particular living situation, I’m in the country. I’m not living in a town where there are a lot of other options available at this time,” she says. “I’m not living near a big city so, for me, working at home is a good choice. I don’t have to be concerned about work expenses, transportation, dealing with winter weather.”

The ability to work from home has also been a great help to Joyce Anderson. Anderson, who suffered a spinal cord injury several years ago, is now a paraplegic and confined to a wheelchair. Although she did work outside the home for a time, it was extremely taxing. And living in sparsely populated northeast Colorado, 3.5 hours from Denver, greatly limits her work options.

“Because of my disability, there is a lengthy healthcare and dressing routine to get ready and in my wheelchair each day,” says Anderson. “Once I’m in my wheelchair, I can function really well. And so jobs in the outside business world, and especially in my rural community, you get there in the morning and work through the day and that was difficult. With my injury, I also need to keep my feet up for a couple of hours every day.”

Not having the use of her feet was a particular challenge for Anderson because she couldn’t use the foot pedal machines that transcriptionists use to review files. With the help of a rehab engineer at Craig Hospital, a medical facility in Denver specializing in spinal cord injuries, a traditional foot pedal machine was modified to allow her to use it. The mechanism that made it possible is a standard sip/puff switch like the one that quadriplegics use to control their wheelchairs. With it, she can play, stop, and rewind files as any other transcriptionist would.

Anderson has been transcribing files for the San Diego VA hospital for nearly five years and recently began working on files for the VA in Montrose, N.Y. Prior to joining NTI, she was inundated by work-at-home offers that were either menial or scams. She wants people with disabilities to know there are other options available.

“I don’t think people know about the opportunity for them if they have some computer skills and they want to take the initiative and learn medical transcription,” says Anderson. “They can obtain a professional job working from home and not just stuffing envelopes.”

— David Yeager is a freelance writer and editor based in Royersford, Pa.