Nursing training gives career path to those with disabilities

This month, Acasia Pippin will become a certified nursing assistant.

She’s one of the first beneficiaries of the Michigan Career and Technical Institute’s two new extension campuses, one in Kalamazoo and another in Benton Harbor. They are operated by the Michigan Department of Labor and Economic Opportunity

An email about the free training led her to the opportunity she had been searching for. 

“It's like by the grace of God, because I really wanted to be back in nursing,” Pippin says. 

The Career and Technical Institute (MCTI) is working with the Northside Association for Community Development in Kalamazoo to provide no-cost certified nurse assistant training for people with disabilities.

That gave a second chance to Pippin, who qualified because of her anxiety. She needed to take the course again after her career plans derailed five years earlier due to family responsibilities. 

"The first time I got my license, it didn't work out because my mother got sick and I had to take care of her," Pippin says. 

First step in health care career

That cost, which can range from $1,500 to $2,000, wasn't in her budget, given her income as a home health aide and the expenses that come with raising her young son. Then she learned about the free option in Kalamazoo.

Acasia Pippin is a CNA student in the state's Career and Technical Institute.

The training is just the start for Pippin, who sees opportunity in health care, an industry that struggles with a labor shortage. 

"I plan on working in a hospital because I plan to further my education in the medical field,” she says. “I want to become a registered nurse, so this is kind of the first step toward that dream.” 

She has been drawn to caregiving since she was a child. She remembers watching her mom’s gentleness in taking care of her grandmother, who had dementia. 

Pippin’s certification expired in 2022, the year her mom died. When her mother was in the hospital, she insisted that Pippin attend to her.

"The nurses were really great. They really understand the situation. They put it in my mom's chart about how active I was in her care,” she says. 

Creating opportunity

The new campuses are part of MCTI's commitment to expanding educational opportunities. That vision fits with Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s goal to increase the number of working-age adults with a skill certificate or college degree to 60% by 2030.

“Our training programs equip individuals with disabilities with the hands-on experience and right skills needed to secure inclusive, competitive employment,” says MCTI Director Jennifer Zuniga.

Zuniga says the placement rate of MCTI's CNA graduates is over 90%. 

CNA training is one of three job training programs offered by the Northside Association. The agency also offers courses in aumotive and building trades, and is working on a robotics training course.

MCTI is the second-largest vocational rehabilitation training center in the country. It has 12 postsecondary training programs, providing paths for people with disabilities to receive an education and make a living while also providing employers with skilled workers.

Bronson Health was instrumental in bringing the CNA program to the Northside Association. The Kalamazoo Promise is also a partner in the program. Bronson Methodist Hospital, a 434-bed non-profit teaching hospital in downtown Kalamazoo, sends recruiters to do mock interviews and look over resumes.

The Career and Technical Institute’s CNA training program is 10 weeks long, much longer than most. The instruction is hands-on to help students practice their skills and prepare for the written and the clinical parts of the state test.

“We really support the students,” says Zuniga. “We see students who might not make it in other CNA training programs because you do your training and clinicals, and then you take your test on your own.

“For us it's repetition, repetition, repetition,” she says. “Our instructors work with students for 10 weeks to help them through clinicals and then go sit for their state test. They do it as a group, so nobody has to figure it out on their own, because that can be scary for people. We help them navigate those systems.”

Recognizing disabilities

All participants in the program are clients of Rehabilitation Services, or MRS, whose mission is to help people with disabilities get employment at the level at which they choose.

“We usually train for full-time competitive employment because we focus on independence,” Zuniga says. “A lot of people don't realize they have a disability. We start talking to them and say, do you have trouble with reading or math? They'll say, ‘I'm terrible at math.’”

Acasia Pippin train with classmate ​​Acurea Brown in the bed, as Diamond “DeDe” Davis watches.

That, she says, could be the result of an undiagnosed disability, and many such students go through high school without the support services they need.

She adds that the state agency helps students apply for accommodations for the tests if they need it. That might include having someone read them the test or using reading software. 

At MCTI’s on-campus facilities, including one in Plainwell, the average age is 18 to 22. But at the satellite locations, students are often older, sometimes approaching retirement age.

Their training is free so students don't graduate with debt. Michigan Rehab pays for tuition, room, testing fees and uniforms, along with any learning accommodations that are needed. 

Making accommodations

Sue Glasheen, a registered nurse and CNA instructor, splits her time between the main campus in Plainwell and the satellite locations in Kalamazoo and Benton Harbor.

She understands her students’ challenges.

“I struggled in school,” says Glasheen. “It took me forever to become a nurse, and I was never a 4.0 student. So it could be a learning disability. Yes, it can be.”

She wants students who struggled in school to know that the MCTI program might be a good fit for them. 

“A lot of my students were in special education in school where they didn't learn the way the school wanted them to learn. They learn in different ways, and we do all different ways here. Some of them are hands-on. I read everything. Some are comprehension problems,” says Glasheen.

In addition to learning disabilities, potential students‘ disabilities might include anxiety, depression, diabetes, or back injuries. 

​​Acurea Brown, 20, a student in Glasheen’s Kalamazoo class, says she’s looking forward to a job that both keeps her moving and helps other people. 

Glasheen "really is all about helping us and making sure that we know the skills so we know what we're doing,” says Brown. "Before, I didn't think I could really make it this far. This program helped open up things. And now, I have so many people texting me asking, ‘How can I get connected to the program?’”

Classmate Diamond “DeDe” Davis, 22, says she felt a little lost after graduating in 2020, trying to figure out what's next. 

“I was working for retail, and I just got bored with it,” Davis says. “So when I heard about the CNA program, I thought that sounded interesting because I've been helping my grandparents and I just enjoy taking care of older people.”

For questions regarding enrollment in any Michigan Career and Technical Institute program, including the certified nursing assistant and culinary programs at the new extension campuses and the expanded adult education services in Plainwell, contact MCTI’s admissions office at

Photos by Shandra Martinez

This article is a part of the multi-year series Disability Inclusion, exploring the state of West Michigan’s growing disability community. The series is made possible through a partnership with Centers for Independent Living organizations across West Michigan.
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