Disability and diversity in graduate school training

Why is it that this population is often left off the page? Where is the training in disability competencies?

According to the United States Census Bureau, the number of people with disabilities in the United States is 56.7 million, or 18.6% of the population. That is more than the percentage identifying as Hispanic or Latino (16.9%) and as Black or African-American (13.1%), and may be an under-count because reporting disability on a census survey is tricky.

Whereas disability rates are high, chronic disease rates are higher. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that about half of all US adults (or 117 million people) have one or more chronic health conditions like heart disease, obesity, arthritis, diabetes, or cancer — and 25% have two or more such conditions.

Suffice to say, a lot of people with chronic illness and disability (CID) live in the US and make up its largest minority group. So why is it that in our discussions of multiculturalism, this population is often left off the page? Where is the training in disability competencies?

Disability is no longer the realm of the medical doctors. Regardless of which applied arm of the field you call home, whether it be health, rehabilitation, clinical,  counseling, or school psychology, your clients will be people with disabilities. In fact, depending on where you are in the country, it is more likely you will work more with this population than any other minority group.

If you’re moved to learn more, start by asking yourself where you fall on the ability continuum, and what privileges this affords you. It was my realization of the privilege I held for my ability — more so than all other privileged identities I possess — that drove my passion for disability and rehabilitation competencies.  One way that I develop these competencies outside of my program is through volunteer service in the community and at conferences and trainings. (On a side note, I believe disability advocates still have work to do to move CID closer to the fore even in those arenas that celebrate diversity, such as the biennial National Multicultural Conference and Summit, an excellent event held next January in Atlanta).

Recently, discussions and publications addressing intersectionality issues have incorporated disability a bit more, which is a great thing. At the same time, it is possible that the unique cultural aspects and experiences of individuals with CID get overlooked. Now is the time to advance the multicultural discussion to include disability as a diverse and cultural experience.

Please check out this great training video with Drs. Linda Mona and Julie Williams. Parts two and three of the video can be found — along with a host of other resources — at the APA Disability Issues Office webpage.

Disability as a Diversity Variable: A Call to Action within Psychology

I look forward to hearing your thoughts on the topic and any experiences you may have had in disability competency training.

Philip Keck

Editor’s note: Phillip Keck is a Counseling Psychology doctoral student at Ball State University and the APAGS liaison to the APA Committee on Disability Issues in Psychology. 

7 thoughts on “Disability and diversity in graduate school training

  1. Nickey

    Diversity involves all aspects of individuals. If we cannot accept that individuals with disabilities are still competent as graduate students, and employees, helping professionals are doing a great disservice to self, and mankind at-large. Thank you for bringing up such a sensitive topic many in the world are not ready to accept….

    1. Phillip Keck

      Thanks for your comments, Nickey. Not surprisingly, I totally agree. I see this issue as a MAJOR concern moving forward in psychology, and health care in general. In recent issues of the American Psychologist, there are some articles discussing psychologists in primary care. Through this venue, our field may be able to open doors and develop training geared toward ability culture. Time will tell I suppose.

      1. nicole2565

        Thanks for your response Phillip and for posting this wonderful topic. It has allowed me to freely share my personal experiences, and offered an opportunity for future candidates’, such as myself, become aware we are not alone, and that psychology has already begun to shift opinions regarding grad students with disabilities. I recall asking a potential mentor about taking the GRE (fear of tests due to my special need), and her reply was, “Well how can you expect to take the licensing exam.” It left a sore spot with me. I had just come to terms with, “coming out,” and explained how I was referring to extra time to study, not that I was incompetent. Reason this blog is so important to me and many others I suppose.

  2. Eric A. Samuels

    Thank you for this wonderful blog post. As a person with a disability myself who is in a PsyD program, there have definitely been some challenging moments. I’ve been asked about my disability in interviews, had a supervisor request that I disclose it first thing to clients, and then, of course, there’s the uncertainty about whether I should even bring it up out of fear that I will be judged.

    1. Yvette Malamud Ozer

      Hi Eric,

      Thanks for sharing about your experience. I have had some similar experiences throughout my PhD training. I’m often left wondering if I was rejected for a placement or training experience because of my skills or my ability. And there is a real lack of competency working with people with disabilities at so many levels: faculty, school administrators, training directors, clinical supervisors…not to mention some of our colleagues!

      1. nicole2565

        I concur with both of you. Had it not been for information shared in another GradPlus article by Dr. Nabil regarding rights and other services I was unaware of, I would not have known how to advocate for myself as a learner. Now that I’ve garnered a better understanding of the subliminal stigma attached to individuals with a diagnosis, I realize I posses the power regarding if I’ll divulge my diagnosis or not. No matter how much higher educational institutions claim to understand, I learned from Dr. Nabil’s article to still equip myself with knowledge regarding my rights? I posit this is even more important as a non-traditional learner. Even though I still find it difficult to divulge with my peers, I anticipate by the time we are done with school, stigma will be less apparent and employers will be seeking us out. Who better understands than those that live with these special abilities? Nicole

        1. Phillip Keck

          Eric, Yvette, and Nicole –Thank you for sharing your experiences here. Sadly, they are not isolated as I have learned of many situations not unlike what you describe. So glad to hear that the gradPSYCH article was helpful for you, Nicole. I hope you are correct in your prediction. If you all, or anyone else viewing this blog, is interested in learning more on how to get involved in disability advocacy through APA, APAGS, or other avenues, please let me know by posting here and I will backchannel my contact information to you. Thanks again for taking time to weigh in and share on this important issue.

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