Psychology student Richard Jennen's life changed on Sept. 29, 1995. The adventurous 16-year-old was only 10 days from his 17th birthday and making plans to become a Navy Seal after he graduated from high school. While Jennen was riding his motorcycle, he was struck by a car that ran a stop sign, crushing vertebrae in his neck and leaving him quadriplegic with partial use of his arms.
"In a matter of 60 seconds my goals, dreams and perceptions changed," Jennen says.
He soon decided on psychology as his new career path-viewing it as an opportunity to use his experiences to help others like him. Jennen is now a third-year doctoral student in the clinical psychology program at Argosy University/Phoenix.
While quadriplegic students are not a common sight in psychology doctoral programs, Jennen is one of a few pursuing psychology degrees. For example, political psychology student Brooke Ellison-the subject of the late Christopher Reeve's A&E film, "The Brooke Ellison Story"-attends the State University of New York's Stony Brook University. (See the March 2005 gradPSYCH for more on Ellison.)
Argosy University/Phoenix faculty are finding that disabled students such as Jennen fill an important void in psychology: They offer a diverse perspective that may help improve psychological services for those with disabilities.
"One of the things we try to emphasize in our program is the knowledge about diversity, and we try to celebrate those differences, which might impact views of psychopathology and treatment," says Philinda Smith Hutchings, PhD, chair of the clinical psychology program at Argosy University/Phoenix. "When we celebrate those differences, it can expand our knowledge of psychology and people in the world."
Getting through the program
Todd Schmiedl, PsyD, was the first quadriplegic student to graduate from Argosy University/Phoenix's clinical psychology program in 2002. A car accident in 1980 had left Schmiedl legally blind and unable to move his legs and arms.
Since graduating, Schmiedl has become an adjunct instructor for an online undergraduate psychology course at Argosy University/Phoenix. In addition to his teaching, he plans to develop a neuropsychology testing battery that will use virtual reality so that it's accessible to people with disabilities. He is also laying the groundwork for a study on sexuality issues among physically disabled people.
While in graduate school, Schmiedl didn't ask for many accommodations besides the obvious, such as having his tests read to him and books electronically scanned so he could then use voice software to read the content aloud. He also used voice-recognition computer software to write papers.
Besides that, Schmiedl says it was important to him to keep up with his classmates without asking for any extra favors. Similarly, Jennen seeks to keep up with his class assignments despite his disability. While he can ask for a two-week extension for any class assignment, he's never done so. In fact, Jennen has mastered typing with his knuckles and can type up to 30 to 35 words per minute.
Nevertheless, psychology programs still have an obligation to help accommodate students with disabilities-something that might require faculty to be inventive on how best to provide accommodations, Hutchings says. For example, a professor might make notes available on the computer to students with disabilities who struggle with taking class notes.
Psychology students with physical disabilities may also have difficulty administering some psychological instruments, such as ones that require manipulating block designs like the WISC-IV. So, faculty or the department may hire an advanced student to assist on administering the tests.
Jennen says learning to administer the tests with blocks was one of his biggest challenges. However, now he can perform the tests with his knuckles as fast as someone with the use of both hands, dumping the blocks behind a screen and using his knuckles and wrists to flip the blocks over.
As for Schmiedl, he memorized the Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale III and several personality and neuropsychology tests so he could administer them.
Adding diversity to the field
Jennen and Schmiedl are examples of the impact students with disabilities can have on psychology, says Kiran Amin, PhD, a clinical psychology professor at Argosy University/Phoenix. After all, psychologists with disabilities themselves can help ensure issues of concern for people with disabilities get addressed through clinical work and psychological research, Amin and Hutchings say.
In fact, both Jennen and Schmiedl plan one day to help people with traumatic brain or spinal cord injuries-either through research or clinical work in rehabilitation and neuropsychology. To prepare, Schmiedl completed two practica in neuropsychology at rehabilitation hospitals and a neuropsychology internship in which he worked with people who were blind or had aging-related brain disorders.
Jennen, who is currently applying for his predoctoral internship, has already completed a practicum doing cognitive retraining and administering psychological tests on people with spinal cord and traumatic brain injuries. As someone who had to relearn how to even feed himself after his accident, Jennen wants to use his life as an inspiration to help others.
"I hope to bring a new perspective to rehabilitation psychology," Jennen says. "Most view it from an able-bodied position looking at a disability. As a disabled person, I take it from a perspective of somebody who has experienced the disability firsthand."Melissa Dittmann Tracey is a writer in Chicago.