Cover Story

Everything was going perfectly during clinical psychology student Susan Schnur's interview for an internship position at Princeton University's Counseling Center--except for one thing. Schnur was worried that the clinical staff would be hesitant to select her once she told them she had lupus, a chronic inflammatory disease that affects the skin and the body's tissues and organs.

Her disability, she told them, meant she wouldn't be able to get into work by 9 a.m., she would be out sick frequently and that she would need to take a nap in the afternoon.

The training staff's response moved her to tears: "Then you will have a lot to teach us."

"I felt this is why I went into this field; I wasn't coming in as a liability," says Schnur, a doctoral student at Rutgers University, of her internship experience four years ago. "I had something to offer the team that they didn't have." For example, Schnur used her experience with disability to lead chronic illness support groups and conduct therapy with people who had chronic mental or physical illnesses and, as she often did, found themselves part of a minority population.

However, students with disabilities are not always as lucky in finding others so accepting of their disability and accommodation needs. As such, students with disabilities--visible or invisible--often must become advocates for themselves in their training to improve accessibility and equality--and internship is no different, those with disabilities say.

To ease the transition, experts on disability issues recommend students with disabilities know their rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)--the landmark 1990 legislation that provides basic civil rights protection to people with disabilities; find an accepting site; and seek a mentoring relationship.


Students may come to internships with a range of invisible disabilities, such as diabetes, epilepsy, learning disabilities, psychological disabilities and fatigue-based disabilities.

The ADA protects employees, including such interns, from discrimination during the application process, hiring and while on the job, and requires that they receive reasonable accommodations once requested.

That said, students with disabilities should not encounter disability-related questions during the interview process, such as "Do you have a disability that would interfere with your ability to perform the job?" However, employers can ask questions to determine whether a student is qualified for a job and can perform the essential job functions, as long as the question does not pertain to their disability.

Once an offer is made, training directors may also ask students for documentation about their disability or require them to go to a health-care professional for documentation--especially for invisible disabilities when the need for the accommodation is not as obvious.


So when should you disclose your disability to an employer?

Legally, a student doesn't have to disclose until they accept the position and, in some cases, students with invisible disabilities who require no accommodations may decide never to disclose, says Kimberly D. Collins, PhD, coordinator of cognitive and psychological disability services at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

"There is always that fear that if they don't disclose, they will have difficulty in some area and [the employer will] look at them as incompetent or stupid," Collins says. "But if they do disclose, they are afraid of a stigma being attached to that."

Students should talk to others with disabilities to determine how, when and why they should disclose, advises Rhoda Olkin, PhD, a professor of clinical psychology at Alliant International University and author of "What Psychotherapists Should Know About Disability" (Guilford Press, 1999). Olkin, who has a polio-induced disability, disclosed her disability from the beginning of her interview for a predoctoral internship and presented it to the internship site as a way to do outreach for clients with disabilities.

If students decide to disclose, Nina Ghiselli, PsyD, the disability services coordinator at Alliant International University, recommends taking the following approach:

  • "I have (state the disability)."
  • "It affects me in… (state how)."
  • "It helps if I have… (state a concrete solution)."

Students should be able to talk knowledgeably about their disability, how they handle it and what accommodations they need, Collins adds.

As for Ghiselli, when she started her internship in 2002 at the University of California, San Francisco, she asked the site to accommodate her learning disability by allowing her to type case notes on the computer--instead of writing them by hand--and having an assistant to proofread her letters and assessments.


To keep workloads manageable, interns with disabilities might require adjustments ranging from schedule flexibility to accommodate medication regimens to assistive equipment, like computers, to services such as sign language interpreters.

When deciding what accommodations to ask for, Ghiselli recommends considering the following:

  • What accommodations did you use in graduate school?
  • What are the functions of the job?
  • How will the disability affect these functions?
  • What might help you do the job to the best of your abilities?

For instance, students with fatigue-related disabilities could negotiate rest periods in their schedule or students with arthritis or a heart condition--who may have difficulty walking long distances or carrying heavy items--could request a close parking space or specific office location.

Moreover, some research finds that students who obtain such support and acceptance tend to be happier overall with their programs. For example, dissertation research by sixth-year Alliant University clinical psychology student Audrey Bethke found that students--like herself--with learning disabilities were more satisfied with their graduate school experience and more dedicated to degree completion when they perceived their graduate programs as supportive and friendly toward students with learning disabilities.


That's even more reason why students with disabilities need to find an internship that's a good match, experts say.

For example, Gina Patterson, PsyD, chose Michigan State University for her internship site because of its openness to having a diverse staff. Since others on staff had disabilities, Patterson--who is a congenital amputee without forearms--viewed them as potential mentors for herself.

To gauge whether a site is disability-friendly, Bethke recommends talking with a liaison or previous interns. Olkin also suggests asking for data on the diversity of the site's staff and previous interns. Depending on what students find, interns might decide to disclose their disability on the application or during the interview, instead of waiting until after they've been hired, experts say.

Furthermore, students with disabilities may find the most accommodating internship sites are college counseling centers or large internship sites because they tend to already have disability services in place and a disabilities officer to help with accommodations, Olkin adds.


To help sort out accommodation and disclosure issues, students with disabilities should also look to build support systems while on internship or even find mentors outside of their program for guidance, Ghiselli recommends. For example, APA offers a mentoring program that links students and psychologists with similar disabilities. For more information about the program, visit the APA Mentoring Program.

As for Schnur, she joined a community lupus support group while she was on internship--a place that offered her comfort since she could talk openly with others who have lupus.

Having a disability while on internship, she says, taught her to better understand minority experiences, the profound rewards of disclosing and speaking the truth, and struggle and feeling alone.

"My internship gave me the gift of recognizing that when clients are in pain they need to find a language and narrative about their lonely struggle," says Schnur, who adds that she could relate because that's what she needed to do to own up to her disability.

Students with disabilities—visible or invisible—often must become advocates for themselves in their training to improve accessibility and equality—and internship is no different.