Establishing Pathways for Disability Management Professionals

HR professionals, with additional experience and knowledge, may take on the functions—and perhaps the title—of a disability management specialist

By Chris Moranda, CDMS, and Celeste Morgan, CDMS, Certification of Disability Management Specialists Commission June 9, 2011

In the fields of disability and absence management, which are essential to workforce management, pathways must be established to attract younger professionals and provide them with the development and mentoring they need to master the required skills and competencies. Otherwise, as Baby Boomers scale back work hours or retire, there could be a shortfall in experienced professionals who are able to design, implement and manage workforce health and productivity programs, including return-to-work, stay-at-work and prevention initiatives.

The aging of the workforce overall makes the succession issue in disability and absence management even more critical. As the large Baby Boomer demographic ages, there will be increased demand for disability management services to support the health and productivity of mature employees, enabling them to stay productive. The question for employers then becomes: Will they have access to the experienced and, preferably, certified disability management specialists they need to manage their programs?

Field research conducted recently by the Certification of Disability Management Specialists (CDMS) Commission reveals the maturing of the field. Of those who responded to a survey about the practice, 45 percent were between the ages of 50 and 60. An additional 15 percent were ages 45 to 49. In addition, the maturity of practitioners in the field was revealed by the duration of experience reported. Of those who responded to the CDMS Commission field survey, 81 percent had seven or more years of experience. Of that group, the largest portion (27 percent) reported more than 20 years of experience in disability management.

These statistics reflect what many disability managers observe anecdotally. Practitioners—many of whom hold the CDMS credential—have many years of experience. These demographics parallel other professions, such as nursing. As health care organizations are experiencing, nurses in their 40s and 50s are aging out of the physical demands of their jobs, which exacerbates the nursing shortage.

In the disability management field, however, there may be another story behind the practitioner survey data. It is possible that respondents to the field survey reflect a skewed perception. More-mature, experienced practitioners, having gone through a professional evolution over the years, tend to identify themselves with disability management. For younger and less experienced professionals, the transition may be more subtle. Thus, it could take several years before they recognize that their job responsibilities make them part of a well-defined and dynamic field.

“When I started my career, I was a vocational rehabilitation counselor. For me, the transition to disability management was a natural and logical progression,” commented Edwin Quick, GPHR, CDMS, chair of the CDMS Commission and executive director of disability management services for a Fortune 500 company. “Today, when I look at the people I encounter in my department, I see greater professional diversity, as more people come together to practice disability management.”

Young professionals beginning their careers in HR or benefits may be assigned tasks initially that are related to return-to-work coordination, claims intake or benefits administration. Over time, they gain more experience with return to work, the Family and Medical Leave Act, workers’ compensation, and short-term and long-term disability. With additional experience and knowledge, they eventually take on the functions—and perhaps the title—of a disability management specialist.

“The aggregation of duties reflects the demand among employers for professionals to manage the disability process. Whatever title a person holds, he or she must develop and hone different skills. The time it takes to gain the skills varies and can be a six-year process,” observed D.T. North, CDMS, a commissioner of the CDMS Commission and chair of its Examination and Research Committee.

“That is why we can’t always identify where in the organization people are performing disability management-related functions,” added North, president of Achieve Consulting Team Inc., in Olympia, Wash., which offers disability management and vocational expert services.

With a succession process, however, the development of disability management professionals becomes more deliberate. Talented people with aspirations of contributing to workplace health and productivity find opportunities along a path that clearly leads to disability and absence management.

On-the-Job Learning

For the succession planning approach to be most effective, one challenge that must be addressed is the fact that disability management practices are largely learned on the job. Unlike disciplines such as rehabilitation counseling and vocational rehabilitation, there is no master’s degree program exclusively in disability management (although disability managers may hold master’s degrees in related disciplines and/or advanced degrees such as an MBA).

The CDMS Commission field research has shown that the roles and functions of disability managers have expanded significantly, making the on-the-job learning component even more critical. Today, the practice of disability management spans four areas or domains of practice:

Disability and work interruption case management.

Workplace intervention for disability prevention.

Program development, management and evaluation.

Employment leaves and benefits administration.

Such a broad spectrum within the practice highlights the need for resources to develop the knowledge and competence of professionals in the field. One such resource is the CDMS Core Knowledge Curriculum, an online educational offering with modules that address each of the four domains of disability management (see The CDMS Core Knowledge Curriculum can be used to earn the Associate Disability Management Specialist (ADMS) designation by passing an exam at the end of the modules, or for continuing education for certified professionals.

In addition, every experienced disability management professional must reach out to others in the field, especially colleagues who are newer to the practice. This may involve formal or informal mentoring of a colleague, and/or speaking and teaching at conferences, workshops and other continuing education venues. Disability managers should consider assigning stretch goals to subordinates who report to them to see who can rise to the challenge of new and expanded responsibilities.

The experience and knowledge that has been acquired by those who have practiced for years in the field must be shared. By reaching out to others, the pathways of opportunity are established and illuminated in the dynamic field of disability management.

Chris Moranda, CDMS, is chair-elect of the Certification of Disability Management Specialists Commission (, the only nationally accredited organization that certifies disability management specialists. She is also manager of Associate Health and Wellness, Disability Services for OhioHealth, based in Columbus, Ohio. Celeste Morgan, CDMS, is a commissioner and secretary of the CDMS Commission and is a recruitment consultant in HR for Mid-Columbia Medical Center in The Dalles, Ore.

Related Articles:

A Coordinated Approach to Disability Management, SHRM Online Benefits Discipline, April 2010

Gauging—and Improving—Employees’ Short-Term Disability Experience, SHRM Online Benefits Discipline, July 2008

Return-to-Work/Stay-at-Work Programs: Reduce Lost Time, Boost Productivity, SHRM Online Benefits Discipline, March 2008

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