them. Gernsbacher likens these accommodations to elevators.
Everyone might prefer to ride an elevator rather than taking the
The biggest barriers
stairs, “but if you don’t have an elevator and you have someone
with a mobility impairment, they’re really screwed,” Gernsbacher
explains. “The people who really need them need them.”
Flexibility is an accommodation that greatly benefits
students with psychological disabilities, such as depression,
anxiety or chronic health issues. It’s important for these
students to be able to work ahead, to anticipate there may be
days when coming to class is impossible, and to have a bit more
leeway, just in case.
Unfortunately, asking for such accommodations can pit students
against mentors. Based on her research, Utah State University
doctoral student Emily Lund, MEd, who has a physical disability,
says faculty and supervisor attitudes are one of the most common
barriers for students with all types of disabilities. Although
also indicative of a larger social issue, Lund thinks faculty and
supervisors sometimes have “difficulty viewing trainees with
disabilities as colleagues and future colleagues instead of clients.”
Olkin agrees. Surveys of students she’s done have consistently
identified supervisors as one of the biggest struggles.
Olkin says sometimes the responsibility supervisors feel
toward their client may cloud their judgment about a trainee.
She recalls one supervisor who would force a trainee to reveal
her blindness to potential clients so they could decide whether
or not to work with her.
“That was so wrong — ethically, morally, strategically,
clinically,” says Olkin. Instead, says Lund and others, faculty and
supervisors should have open conversations with their students
and ask about accommodations that have worked well in the past.
Another major barrier appears when trainees must
Checking our attitudes
administer tests, such as those that require the trainee to have
visual acuity, for example, to administer and analyze. But
because clinical assessment is standardized, when students
require accommodations to conduct one, its validity can
be challenged. But Olkin thinks administering tests may be
unnecessary as long as the process and resulting report are
understood. “If we take away the idea that everybody has to do
everything everyone else does, and we really ask what are the
essential functions [of training], then we come up with different
answers for students with various disabilities,” she says.
The bottom line, say students and researchers, is that all
students, administrators and faculty should explore their own
biases about people with disabilities.
“Even psychologists and rehab professionals are not immune
to biases and prejudice about disability,” says Carrie Pilarski,
PhD, a psychologist at the Origami Brain Injury Rehabilitation
Center and chair of APA’s Committee on Disability Issues in
She suggests questioning reactions and treating disabilities
with the same respect as other types of diversity. If it were a
difference of race or gender, would a catastrophizing attitude
be appropriate? On the other hand, would an overly positive
or sensationalizing attitude be appropriate? Both extremes are
Despite a push for diversity in other areas, “disability is
often treated as a problem or burden rather than an important
dimension of diversity,” says Lund. During her graduate school
application process, she remembers many programs stressing
the importance of diversity in race, ethnicity and sexual
orientation, but not including disability in the discussion.
Phillip Keck, a counseling psychology doctoral student at
Ball State University and the APAGS liaison to CDIP, cites stats
from the U.S. Census Bureau that list people with disabilities
as the nation’s largest minority group. But Keck was surprised
when he first attended APA’s biennial National Multicultural
Conference and Summit. Although the summit’s host divisions
represent women, culture, ethnicity, race, LGBT issues and
counseling psychology, Div. 22 (Rehabilitation), while typically
a high-level sponsor, is not a host division.
After talking to his colleagues, Keck learned, “It’s been an
ongoing battle for 20 years or more to figure out how to break
the mold in terms of the diversity discussion and disability,”
though he says that with persistent advocacy, psychology can
move in the right direction toward inclusion of disability as
The good news is that once requested, most
accommodations are met. So, students who want
such services should start making requests before
the semester begins.