In the 1970s as a psychology doctoral student, Carol J. Gill, PhD, would comb through books in the library, dragging thick psychology tomes and journals from the shelves and then hoisting them onto a photocopier as part of her research. However, unlike most students, Gill did it from a motorized wheelchair and with a weakness in her arms, the physical results from having polio.

The physical exertions from research and lack of accessibility made her studies nearly impossible. "It scares me how close I came to not making it through the system," Gill says. "I didn't fit into the program's structure, so it became my personal problem to find the resources I needed so I could do research on an equal basis."

Thirty years later, new laws and better assistive technologies have opened the doors to improved accessibility for students with disabilities in psychology programs, with, for example, screen-reading software that aid students in research and other academic activities. But experts on the topic say there's still a long way to go in making colleges more accessible and making faculty and administrators realize--in action and attitude--the importance of accessible academic programs for students with physical and psychological disabilities.

A 1997 study of 400 faculty members conducted by researchers Anne R. Thompson, PhD, Leslie Bethea and Jennifer Turner, documents the problem: It found that less than 18 percent were familiar with Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and only half of the faculty were familiar with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), both of which prohibit discrimination on the basis of disability. "It's partly that faculty don't know, but they also resist it by their attitude--with attitudes that have no sense of understanding or compassion or what the law requires," says Hendrika Vande Kemp, PhD, a former psychology professor who experiences fatigue-related ailments resulting from a head injury.

Vande Kemp recalls a student who had to hand-copy charts and carry heavy testing equipment from site to site for an internship when she had weakness in her arms from a neck-related injury. "All these obstacles put in the way at the training level make students just want to give up," Vande Kemp says. "They get so much harassment about it, they don't even want to bother."

As such, students with disabilities in higher education have become better social activists because they face greater burdens in attaining accessibility on their own, says Rhoda Olkin, PhD, author of "What Psychotherapists Should Know about Disability" (The Guilford Press, 1999). "Students face a belief by the profession that those with certain types of disabilities can't be a psychologist; deaf and blind [students] face the most barriers," Olkin says. For instance, many textbook publishers fail to make electronic versions so blind students can retrieve the information with a screen reader.

The charge to faculty

There is a lot, however, that faculty can do to ease the burden on students with disabilities and better accommodate them. Here's a sampling:

  • Become familiar with disability laws. Directors in psychology programs, faculty and training supervisors should find out about laws and regulations relevant to accessibility issues and students with disabilities. The ADA information center (www.adainfo.org) provides information, publications and technical assistance on the ADA and a variety of other disability-related issues. Another resource is the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (www.eeoc.gov), which has numerous publications on the ADA, including "The ADA and Psychiatric Disabilities."

  • Create an environment where students feel comfortable disclosing their disability. While K-12 students with disabilities are guaranteed more accommodations under law, college students are guaranteed "equal access" and have more responsibility for ensuring accommodations on their own. College students control whether and when they want to disclose their disability and must initiate a request for accommodations, says Scott Lissner, ADA coordinator at Ohio State University.

Lissner suggests faculty invite students with a disability to discuss any accommodation needs. Faculty might consider posting this on their syllabus or Web site. "Inviting to disclose is very helpful," Lissner says. "And it shows that [the faculty] are open to these requests and willing to abide by the rules."

  • Tap into the resources and expertise at the university's disability office. A university's disabilities office can assist in meeting and approving accommodation requests. The office can help in various ways--from gaining information on responsibilities as a faculty member to tips to improve accessibility in the classroom.

  • Be a mentor. Doctoral student Poorna Kushalnagar, of the University of Houston's clinical psychology program, has bilateral hearing loss and credits her adviser, Julia Hannay, PhD, for the support she's found. Hannay accompanied her to meetings with the disability office staff to discuss accommodation issues and also plans to hold a workshop to train her interpreter on ethics issues so that Kushalnagar and her interpreter can better work together at training sites.

Kushalnagar switches between using interpreters, computers, a combination of lip-reading and hearing aids, or, as a last resort, paper and pen when attending classes. "I feel that a strong, supportive adviser is instrumental in making a deaf graduate student's educational experience comfortable and accessible," Kushalnagar says. Hannay has been working with Kushalnagar to try to get simultaneous accommodation of an interpreter and captioning service for presentations and future courses. So far, Kushalnagar has only been granted simultaneous accommodation for clinical and research meetings at her practicum site.

APA's Disability Issues Office also recognizes the importance of a mentor for students with disabilities and sponsors a mentoring program. "The idea is to match persons with other professionals with disabilities, because there are not very many people with disabilities in psychology," says Michael Dunn, PhD, Veterans Affairs (VA) staff psychologist in spinal cord injuries, who served as a mentor in the program to a student, who like him, is paraplegic.

Dunn's mentee, Jo Ann Shoup, says having a mentor was a valuable asset during her internship at a physical rehabilitation center. "What really helped was the ability to have a dialogue and problem solving with someone who had a great ability to tap into the organizational perspective and talk through what I may have been experiencing," Shoup says.

  • Ensure accommodations are met during the internship. Vande Kemp, in a study that will be published in a special issue of Women in Therapy this year, suggests training directors collect data on accessibility compliance, response to accommodation requests, and patterns of treatment at training sites to determine if disabled students are being matched properly with sites.

When students with a disability leave campus for an internship, they are often faced with confusion on who has the responsibility for ensuring accessibility--the site or the university. "This responsibility gets juggled back and forth and the result is students don't get accommodations," Olkin says.

In an article that appeared in Professional Psychology: Research and Practice (Vol. 31, No. 5), psychology students with disabilities wrote about their difficulty in the internship application process. The authors encouraged internship training centers to obtain information on their obligations in providing accessible services, consider ways to provide equal access to students, and consider the adverse impact of certain interview questions, such as by asking a deaf student "Who will pay for the interpreter?" or "How did you become deaf?"

  • Be open to technology accommodations. Electronic media have helped make education more accessible, but education has been slow in being made accessible to disabled students, says Judy Brewer, director of the Web Accessibility Initiative, which strives to provide accessibility on the Internet. Section 508 on electronic and information technology of the Rehabilitation Act requires people with disabilities to have "access to and use of information and data that is comparable to the access to and use of the information and data" for people without disabilities.

Classroom environments should be made accessible to students, by ensuring they are equipped at the minimum with access to electrical outlets for computers or assistive devices. Students should be able to obtain course material in alternative formats if needed.

The Internet offers an opportunity to improve accessibility since information can be delivered via audio, graphics, text or even redirected to braille. "It's more flexible than just working with words on paper because it can carry all these different streams," Brewer says. "The real shame is a lot of educators have not realized this early on in the process....Educators need to be cognizant of the need for accessibility in learning materials so they do not inadvertently close educational opportunities to another generation."

"Every eager psychology student is a resource we can't afford to waste," says the University of Illinois's Gill. "Just because they do not fit in the typical structure doesn't mean we shouldn't welcome them. We should make sure they have the resources they need to fit into the structure or change the structure to be more open to diversity....It's their right as a citizen, and their right as a member of this discipline."

Further Reading

  • Bruyere, S.M., & O'Keeffe, J. (1994). Implications of the Americans with Disabilities Act for psychology. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

  • Hauser, P.C., Maxwell-McCraw, D.L., Leigh, I.W., & Gutman, V.A. (2000). Internship accessibility issues for deaf and hard-of-hearing applicants: No cause for complacency. Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, 31, 569-574.

  • Khubchandani, A. (1999). The ADA and internships: Your responsibilities as internship and postdoctoral agency directors. APPIC Newsletter, 24, 10-11, 21.

  • Olkin, R. (1999). What psychotherapists should know about disability. New York: The Guilford Press.


  • www.adainfo.org. ADA Information Center; provides information, written materials and technical assistance on the ADA.

  • www.ahead.org. Association on Higher Education and Disability; provides information on a range of disabilities as well as materials related to disability and higher education.

  • www.osu.edu/grants/dpg/fastfact/index.html. Provides guidelines for faculty to help improve accessibility within the classroom.

  • www.bu.edu/cpr/reasaccom/index.html. Describes types of accommodations for people with psychiatric disabilities.