Living with Disability: a therapist’s view
Since I published the details of my online training course – ‘Living with Disability: Get the Bigger Picture’ – I’ve had several calls and messages from other disabled therapists, all of whom have said it’s ‘about time’ a training course like this was available, and describing their own experiences of discrimination and lack of empathy from colleagues, tutors or supervisors.
Unhelpful attitudes to disability.
Having been on the receiving end of some pretty dodgy attitudes myself, I shouldn’t have been surprised – but I was, and angry too. Angry, because we therapists rightly place great store in being able to set aside our personal beliefs and opinions, and offer an empathic and non-judgemental service to our clients.
And yet, these stories that I’m hearing from my disabled colleagues, and that I can attest to from my own experience, suggest that unhelpful attitudes towards disability and disabled people still exist within the therapy professions, quite possibly out of conscious awareness; it’s not that they are expressed through malice or ill-will, but rather through unexamined assumptions about what living with disability is like.
Did you just say what I think you said?
I’ve been asked by a tutor on my diploma course whether the high heeled shoes I wore to university one day were symbolic of me ‘trying to express what remains of my sexuality’; I’ve been ordered by a tutor on a previous course to have another student accompany me to my car (parked safely on a gated college campus) because I’m ‘a fragile person’; I’ve been told by an experienced fellow counsellor that if she had come to me as a client without prior notice of my disability, she wouldn’t come back again because she would feel she had been ‘misled’; I’ve been informed by a tutor in a personal development group that I ‘must be in denial of my anger about being disabled because I don’t express it in the group’.
All of these comments say something about some of the attitudes and assumptions that are routinely made about and towards disabled people, notably that we are:
- asexual (or conversely rampantly and dangerously sexual) beings;
- fragile or vulnerable by default – to the point of being childlike;
- shameful – that our impairment is a sign of some moral, spiritual or other weakness or failing;
- angry and bitter at our situation, often to the exclusion of all other emotions.
The stereotypes and assumptions around disability are so deeply entrenched in our social mores and culture that until we experience disability ourselves, or see a close family member or friend become disabled, we can be entirely unaware that we hold them – and this includes therapists.
Disability on therapy training courses.
On top of this, disability is barely addressed on many counselling and psychotherapy courses, and where it is included, it tends to be lumped in with modules on ‘health’. Most disabled people, however, are not ill! On the diploma course I completed, disability was treated as something that happens to individuals, for whom it’s an ongoing health condition. I argued at the time, and in Living with Disability: Get the Bigger Picture, that we need to see disabled people as a minority group in the same way as we view people from a minority ethnic background or who identify as LGBT.
What that would mean is acknowledging the social and cultural aspects to living with disability, and how that affects the individual disabled person themselves. I work with disabled clients and have often heard people remark that it’s other people’s attitudes that upset them the most, not the plain facts of their physical condition. The same goes for disabled therapists who are feeling unheard, misunderstood and unsupported by their colleagues and/or managers, and the profession at large.
Understanding the experience of living with disability.
It’s ironic that as a visibly disabled person, I always feel ‘on show’, and yet as a disabled therapist I feel almost invisible, as do the disabled colleagues who have contacted me in the last couple of weeks.
It may be that as disabled therapists we need to find our voice and call for improvements in the training of counsellors and psychotherapists around disability and disabled people, so that we and our disabled clients feel that we’re truly seen and heard – but through a clear lens of awareness rather than through the dusty filter of unhelpful stereotypes and assumptions.
‘Living With Disability: Get the Bigger Picture’