Developmental Disability Nurse Career Overview

Janice Monti, Ph.D.
Updated January 11, 2023
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    A disability or special needs nurse provides care to patients with a range of developmental disabilities and challenges. Read on to learn more.
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    how long to become

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    average earning potential$75,330SOURCE: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

    Developmental Disability Nurse Career in Brief

    adn or bsn required
    certification optional

    Disability nurses work with other healthcare providers to care for individuals of all ages with intellectual and developmental disabilities. These registered nurses (RNs) possess specialized training to assist with mobility, communication, bodily function, hygienic, and nutritional needs appropriate to the lifestyle of their patients.

    Key Responsibilities

    • Direct care
    • Case management and development of Individual Service or Education Plans
    • Education for patients and families about care options
    • Advocacy for patients’ rights

    Certification Option

    • Developmental Disability Nurses Association Certification

    Career Traits

    • Empathy
    • Compassion
    • Patience
    • Specialized training in disability and special needs healthcare
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    Where Do Developmental Disability Nurses Work?

    Disability nurses may enter the field after earning their nursing degree and RN license. Work experience and certification will broaden employment and salary possibilities. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), hospitals, physicians’ offices, home healthcare, and skilled nursing facilities employ the highest level of RNs overall. See below for duties performed by disability nurses by workplace setting.

    • minusHospitals

      Disability nurses working in hospitals provide direct patient care, coordinate treatment with the healthcare team and specialists, and administer treatment plans.

    • minusHome Healthcare

      Many disability nurses work in home healthcare settings assisting with daily patient living. This may include helping with bodily functions, bathing, and eating; developing mobility and communication skills; and coordinating services with healthcare specialists, family members, and other caregivers.

    • minusSchools

      Schools employ special needs nurses to identify accommodations for students with disabilities like removing barriers to learning and developing and implementing Individual Education Plans. Disability RNs train teachers and staff to assist with accommodations, but they typically provide care, such as tube feeding and giving medication, during school. Some are assigned to a single student depending on the education plan.

    Why Become a Developmental Disability Nurse?

    RNs who intend to enter the field of disability nursing should consider how their own professional goals and interests fit with the demands and challenges they will encounter.

    Advantages to Becoming a Developmental Disability Nurse

    • check-circleGrowing demand for nurses with training and experience in intellectual and developmental disorders, mental health conditions, and learning disabilities
    • check-circleJob opportunities available in a variety of practice settings (e.g., hospitals, skilled nursing facilities, and home healthcare)
    • check-circleCareer advancement possibilities through certification and graduate training
    • check-circleOpportunities to deliver person-centered patient care and exercise independent decision-making
    • check-circlePersonally fulfilling work improving the health and lifestyles of patients with chronic and permanent conditions, such as autism, cerebral palsy, and Down syndrome

    Disadvantages to Becoming a Developmental Disability Nurse

    • x-circleInadequate RN training to handle the complex medical, behavioral, and advocacy needs of various patient populations with disabilities
    • x-circleLower salaries despite the required specialized knowledge and training
    • x-circlePhysically and emotionally challenging
    • x-circleDifficult ethical and legal considerations regarding patients’ rights, such as their capacity to make their own medical decisions and guardianship
    • x-circleMust report physical or psychological abuse of vulnerable patients by family members or other caregivers

    How to Become a Developmental Disability Nurse

    Earn a bachelor of science in nursing (BSN) degree.

    Earning a BSN typically takes four years of full-time study. State nursing boards require an associate nursing or BSN degree to apply for RN licensure; however, most employers and specialties require a bachelor’s.

    Pass the NCLEX-RN exam to receive licensure.

    Nurses should take the National Council Licensure Examination for Registered Nurses (NCLEX-RN) directly after completing their nursing degree. All 50 states require a passing NCLEX-RN score for licensure.

    Gain experience as an RN.

    RNs must complete a minimum of 4,000 hours of practice work experience within five years of their application to receive certification as a developmental disability nurse.

    Earn a nursing certification in intellectual and developmental disabilities nursing.

    Earning a certification in intellectual and developmental disabilities demonstrates advanced proficiency beyond an RN license. Nurses must work for at least two years in developmental disability settings to qualify for this certification.

    Find employment.

    After completing degree and licensure requirements, RNs may enter the workforce. Job seekers can receive help finding employment by joining a professional nurse association or working with a college career office.

    How Much Do Developmental Disability Nurses Make?

    Recent BLS projections show a 7% growth rate for all RN jobs between 2019 and 2029, creating approximately 175,900 openings. As healthcare needs expand for patients with chronic and permanent disabilities and mental health conditions, the demand for disability and special needs nurses will continue to rise.

    According to the online job seeker site, ZipRecruiter, developmental disability nursing salaries average $52,600 a year, although compensation varies considerably by years of experience, skill level, and location. While employment opportunities exist across the United States, six cities in California rank among the top 10 highest-paying cities for this nurse specialty.

    Frequently Asked Questions

    What do developmental disability nurses do?

    A developmental disability nurse, also known as a special needs nurse, provides a variety of services to assist patients with intellectual or developmental conditions. In addition to providing direct patient care, they serve as liaisons with other healthcare providers to coordinate care and provide education and counseling to families and caretakers. Disability nurses can work in a variety of settings, including school, camp sites, and home.

    How do you become a special needs nurse?

    After graduating from a two-year ADN or four-year BSN program, prospective special needs nurses must pass the NCLEX-RN exam and apply for licensure through their state nursing regulatory board. Earning certification offered through the Developmental Disabilities Nursing Association requires a minimum of two years of work experience in developmental disability settings.

    What type of nurse works with kids living with disabilities?

    Working with children with disabilities requires a calm demeanor, patience, and compassion in addition to specialized nursing skills. Special needs nurses must develop the ability to interpret the needs of their patients, many of whom are nonverbal or express a limited range of emotions. They must use good judgement to make independent decisions about patient care. It can also be physically demanding (e.g., lifting patients, transferring patients in wheelchairs, and assisting with toileting).

    What qualifies as a developmental disability?

    Developmental disabilities refer to a broad range of conditions caused by impairment in physical, learning, language, or behavioral areas which impact daily activities throughout an individual’s lifetime. Examples include autism spectrum disorders, intellectual disability, Down syndrome, and muscular dystrophy. Disabilities that limit muscle control, movement, and mobility often result from brain injuries or conditions such as cerebral palsy.

    Resources for Developmental Disability Nurses

    • Developmental Disabilities Nurses Association

      Established in 1992, this nonprofit professional organization provides education, advocacy, networking, and support to nurses who care for patients with developmental disabilities. DDNA offers nursing certification for RNs and licensed practical and vocational nurses. The association hosts an annual conference, publishes newsletters and academic journals, and sponsors a job bank.

    • American Nurses Association

      Serving the interests of over four million RNs across the states, this prominent nursing organization shares professional development resources, including webinars, mentorship programs, and continuing education hours. An important focus of ANA centers on lobbying efforts at the state and federal levels addressing issues that impact nursing professionals and quality healthcare.

    • International Journal of Developmental Disabilities

      This multidisciplinary academic journal, available six times a year, publishes articles on all aspects of people living with an intellectual disability, including genetic predispositions, learning interventions, challenging behavior, medication, advocacy, and legal issues. The research presented in the IJDD offers practical help for people with intellectual disabilities or those who care for them.

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    Portrait of Elizabeth M. Clarke, FNP, MSN, RN, MSSW

    Elizabeth M. Clarke, FNP, MSN, RN, MSSW

    Elizabeth Clarke (Poon) is a board-certified family nurse practitioner who provides primary and urgent care to pediatric populations. She earned a BSN and MSN from the University of Miami.

    Clarke is a paid member of our Healthcare Review Partner Network. Learn more about our review partners.

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