It might be that I was a tree unaware of the forest around me, or rather that I was in denial of being part of that forest.
For the past decade, I have been disabled from numerous surgeries to repair an assortment of injuries and diseases (two knee surgeries, shoulder, wrist, both hips replaced). Herniated lumbar disks and cervical disk damage will require surgery and are helped by reliance on my trusty cane. Associated with these ailments is chronic pain, pain drugs (that made me stupid), endless medical visits, tests, probes, hospitalization, rehab, physical therapy, use of assistive devices, dependence on others, frustrations, feelings of inadequacy, lost productivity and loss of mobility freedom.
But with all of these disabilities, I never thought of myself as "disabled." Christopher Reeve, formerly Superman, was my image of someone permanently disabled (from a spinal cord injury). In contrast, mine were temporary impediments. Such downward social comparison processes enabled me to maintain a positive self-image, to ignore the fact that I was an accident-prone klutz, but worse, to distance myself professionally from any connection with the field of disability and rehabilitation psychology.
Thus, I was disinclined to accept an invitation by APA's Public Interest Directorate to give a keynote address at a recent national disability conference. I did not have the expertise to lecture to experts in this field assembled by the National Institute of Disability and Research Rehabilitation (NIDRR) and APA's Div. 22 (Rehabilitation).
Am I glad that I gave in! The experience of preparing that presentation, delivering it and interacting with many colleagues who represent diverse aspects of this broad field has become a highlight of my presidential year. Let me share some of what I learned there:
I was proud to discover the history of APA's involvement with disability issues over the past 30 years. APA is committed to integrating these issues into its research, practice, and educational and legislative agendas.
Disability is not only about being blind or deaf or paralyzed, it is also about transient handicaps, about many impediments to optimal functioning, about the social dynamics and life-course development of disabled people interacting with their behavioral settings. Disability assumes many nonobvious forms: cognitive and learning disabilities, obesity, irreversible neurological disorders from environmental toxins, prejudice and discrimination that create barriers to accessing available needed or desired resources, the devastating impact of severe psychopathology and, most pervasively, the disabling consequences of extreme poverty.
Disability is an experience that will touch most of us due to a personal condition or that of a loved one. More than 54 million Americans have a disability. Almost half have a severe disability, affecting their ability to see, hear, walk or perform other basic functions of life. People with disabilities now comprise the single largest minority group ever identified in the United States. It is evident that disability is an "equal opportunity minority."
NIDRR has moved away from its earlier reliance on the medical model of treating individuals with disabilities toward a comprehensive health-wellness-enablement model. This paradigm shift, in line with psychology's new health focus, moves research and practice toward a broader social-cultural model of disability as normal variants of human experience. People with disabilities are now understood as functioning in multiple behavioral contexts impacted by social, economic, political and cultural factors, as well as even global interdependencies that can foster or degrade the quality of their lives. To translate that vision into practice requires developing strategies for attitude and value change within the general society, among relevant professionals, legislators and especially the media.
Many paradigms in various domains of psychology can enrich disability research and practice and be enriched by building these new bridges. For example, my research on time perspective has clear implications for rehabilitation efforts, such as investigating the time-perspective correlates of rehabilitation success and failure. Since hope must be an essential ingredient in rehabilitation, promoting a future-orientation and demoting present-fatalism or a focus on past-negative should support more effective rehabilitation.
The most basic lesson I have learned is that the line between abled and dis-abled is a permeable one that we will all move across throughout our lives for varying durations and with varying degrees of limitations. As we move into or out of disability, we do not make that voyage alone, but bring along a community of others who are affected by their connections to those who are disabled. Their supportive, understanding response to disability helps increase awareness of the disability experience while also fostering the will to be resilient.
That is a challenge for you, me and all psychologists concerned about including all those with any disability within the caring human community.