Cover Story

Young woman in wheelchair on beach

For Angela Kuemmel, one of the most challenging aspects of her neuropsychology practicum is administering psychological tests. That's not just because partial paralysis from a spinal cord injury makes writing and other fine motor skills problematic. It's also because of the attitudes of some around her.

"I've encountered people who think that because of my disability, I can't administer a test," says the wheelchair-using Kuemmel, a fourth-year clinical psychology student at Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

The Americans with Disabilities Act and Section 504 of theRehabilitation Act have helped those with disabilities overcome many physical hurdles. Together the laws prohibit discrimination, help ensure the accessibility of campus buildings, course work and other aspects of academic life, and require schools to provide reasonable accommodations to help students with disabilities meet their academic requirements.

But according to Kuemmel and other graduate students with disabilities, some challenges-especially attitudinal ones-remain.

"Grad school is tough for able-bodied students to get through," says Kuemmel, who serves as the APAGS liaison to APA's Committee on Disability Issues in Psychology. "When you think about the additional challenges you have by having a disability, you really have to be your own advocate."

She and others have plenty of suggestions for how students with disabilities can stand up for themselves and get what they need to make it through grad school. Their survival strategies range from using technology to finding support from mentors, peers and disability services offices.

 

FACING CHALLENGES

Kara Sheridan, a third-year clinical psychology student also at Nova Southeastern, has a genetic disorder called osteogenesis imperfecta that causes her bones to break easily. The disorder also causes extremely short stature, a fact that Sheridan sees as more of a disability than her wheelchair use.

At the hospital where Sheridan is doing a practicum, for instance, she couldn't reach her mailbox or patient charts until they were moved to lower positions.

"It sounds like common sense, but this was something the administrators were really worried about," says Sheridan.

In fact, the hospital was so worried about allowing Sheridan to train there that they questioned whether she could safely work there, especially since she would be assigned to an inpatient children's psychiatric unit.

"I'm small and look younger than most people my age," says Sheridan. "A lot of people have a paternalistic attitude that they have to take care of me more than any other student."

Together the two sides worked out accommodations agreeable to both parties. Sheridan, for example, agreed to carry a mirror she could use as a periscope to peek through a window and make sure would-be escapees weren't lurking by the unit door.

"When considering accomodations, I have to be careful not to put myself in a position where I would be practicing unethically, like by leaving the door open while conducting therapy," Sheridan says.

Stigma represents another challenge for students with disabilities. That's especially true of what Peter N. Squire calls "hidden disabilities." Squire, a fourth-year human factors and applied cognition student at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., has severe attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, plus learning disabilities.

"Because it's not directly out there, like it would be with a mobility impairment, there can be more angst about it," he says. "You're always thinking, 'Are others going to find out? And what will they think?'"

Squire spent much of his life trying to mask his disability. That changed when he encountered a college professor who didn't believe in learning disabilities and thought accommodations were unfair.

"That opened my eyes to the fact that I couldn't hide from my disability," he says.

These days Squire asks for the accommodations he needs-extra time and super-quiet test-taking environments, for example. Rather than providing an unfair advantage, he says, such adjustments "just level the playing field for me."

FINDING SOLUTIONS

Squire and others offer several suggestions to students with disabilities:

  • Get to know your school's disability services office or officer. Ideally you should contact the office even before you arrive on campus, recommends Christopher T. Moy, director of George Mason's Office of Disability Services. The office will then review documentation of your disability and work with you to determine reasonable accommodations and increase your self-advocacy skills. Moy's office also works to fight stigma and to educate professors and administrators about disabilities. Some disability services offices offer help for students in such areas as time management or organizational skills.

  • Get the accommodations you need. Accommodations range from shifting classes to the ground floor to providing sign-language interpreters and volunteer note-takers to using books on tape. Don't be afraid to ask for what you need to succeed, says Sheridan. "By the time we've reached this level of education, a lot of us are used to being independent and achieving," she says. "It can be difficult to ask for accommodations that will help you succeed in grad school. But there's nothing wrong with needing more accommodations than you needed in the past."

  • Take advantage of technology. There's plenty of assistive technology for students with disabilities, including books on tape, Braille journals and communications devices. But such devices aren't just for students who are blind or deaf, notes Squire. For example, he uses software called Kurzweil that reads text. He also uses software called Dragon Naturally Speaking, which converts his spoken words into text. And the technology doesn't have to be fancy, Squire adds: He also records his classes, so he can go back and listen again for things he may have missed during class time.

  • Recast a disability as an asset. Supervisors sometimes worry that a therapist with a disability will distract patients, says Sheridan. "I've actually found it's been an asset sometimes," she says. Working with a child plagued by anxieties about people staring at him, for instance, she explained that she could relate. She bonded with a patient who was an avid skateboarder by mentioning that she shops in skateboard stores for her wheelchair parts.

  • Find a mentor. APA's Disability Issues Office sponsors a mentoring program that matches students and early-career psychologists with disabilities with psychologists with disabilities. For information about the program, visit www.apa.org/pi/disability/mentoring/homepage.html.

  • Come together. Getting involved in the advocacy community gives students with disabilities a chance to network, share ideas and find solutions to common problems. "Sometimes you just want to vent," says Squire, a past chair of a disability group called the National Youth Leadership Network.

"The number of individuals with disabilities who get out of high school, get out of college and even go on to pursue advanced degrees is minuscule," says Squire. "We have to really push to get people with disabilities involved in these programs."

“Grad school is tough for able-bodied students to get through. When you think about the additional challenges you have by having a disability, you really have to be your own advocate.”

Angela Kuemmel
Nova Southeastern University