Moving Beyond the ADA

Submitted by Anju Khubchandani, M.A.
Disability Issues Officer
American Psychological Association

Revising our perceptions and attitudes is the first step in accommodating students with disabilities. It is vital to remember that similarities among all students are much more significant than their differences: they are all, first and foremost, students.

Although many postdoctoral and internship sites have made strides in complying with federal regulations (ADA, Section 504), much progress must be made before all our programs are truly accessible to trainees with disabilities. Negative attitudes are perhaps the single most significant barrier faced by individuals with disabilities in the educational process. Such attitudes are frequently natural and innocent, deriving as they often do from fears, guilt, and inexperience with individuals who have disabilities. But as forms of prejudice, they can be devastating to the person with a disability. Such prejudices define the person by the disability, as if it comprises the entirety of his or her being, and can lead to isolation and segregation of people with disabilities. Negative attitudes can be more disabling than any disability.

These attitudes can also work to reduce our expectations of the individual's performance. In fact, one of the most common barriers to academic and career achievement for students and interns with disabilities is low expectations on the part of those with whom they interact and by those who directly provide training and supervision. Maintaining equally high expectations for participants with disabilities, with the expectation that they will succeed, can help them to develop and accomplish their goals.

Be aware that each individual with a disability will have a different level of functioning, even within the same disability category. Also, compensation skills will vary widely from one person to another. Factors such as personality, intelligence, culture, family environment, degree of disability, age of onset, and whether the disability was congenital or acquired, all affect a person's level of adjustment and adaptation. It is always best, therefore, to establish employment-related needs by consulting directly with the individual rather than making assumptions about his or her capabilities. It is the trainee who is the "expert" regarding his or her disability-related needs, and who can usually suggest solutions or alternatives to a specific concern or problem, or ways that tasks or activities can be modified so that he/she can participate in what may become a valuable learning experience.

Although many disabilities are obvious, other disabilities are hidden, commonly referred to as "invisible" disabilities. The range of invisible disabilities is wide and includes medical disabilities, such as chronic illness, psychological disabilities, learning disabilities, and acquired brain injuries. Individuals with invisible disabilities are often confronted with difficulties that those with obvious impairments are not. For example, because the accommodation needs of a person with an invisible disability is not always apparent, that person must be constantly proactive about having their needs met. This can be exhausting. Others may have a hard time remembering that someone with a hidden disability has some very real physical or mental limitations. Therefore they may react to the person in a way that suggests that they are lazy, or trying to avoid work. Still others tend to mistrust, disbelieve, or ignore disabilities they cannot see, such as learning disabilities, which in turn may create negative attitudes.

Where disabilities are visible (through wheelchairs or white canes or hearing aids, and so forth), these can lead to individuals being faced with exclusion, infantalization, being patronized or stigmatized. Where the disabilities are less apparent initially, or less well understood (such as medical or dietary requirements, unusual behavior including speech patterns or movements, evidence of undue anxiety), people may be surprised and respond by appearing alarmed, embarrassed or repelled. This clearly reduces the capacity for sensible communication to take place, let alone meaningful intellectual discourse or academic inquiry. Working through these negative attitudes and broadening awareness of disability issues should become an important part of staff development activities.

Perceived attitudes by others is one of the reasons for the reluctance of interns and students to disclose the existence of disabilities. Many do not disclose because of fear of prejudice or discrimination, because they have no idea that they may be entitled to additional support, or because they do not categorize themselves as having a disability. Where an individual's disability is not visible, it can be a real dilemma to decide whether to tell others about it.

Internships and postdoctoral programs can encourage this decision by providing increased opportunities for prospective trainees to disclose disabilities on application forms and to discuss disability-related needs. This is a crucial first step in communicating that the institution is taking a positive, proactive approach towards inclusion of individuals with disabilities. Ultimately, however, if a trainee chooses not to disclose or refuses the support offered, then that choice must be respected. But by providing a positive, welcoming, and encouraging arena, you can begin to create an environment where differences are not viewed as negative impediments and where individual strengths are recognized. Staff awareness of their institutional policies on disability and of how to support trainees with disabilities appropriately is also very important. Attention should be paid to clarifying institutional policies and raising awareness amongst all staff of the training site to promote equality of opportunity, raise aspirations, and challenge stereotypes.

Internships and postdoctoral programs can greatly facilitate career preparation and development for students with disabilities. These experiences may enhance an individual's confidence in his/her own capabilities, confirm career preferences, and identify the possible services and supports that will maximize opportunities for personal and professional success. Furthermore, the internship and postdoctoral experience can help people with disabilities to address some of the barriers they will face when seeking employment. Simultaneously, the attitudes of internship and postdoctoral program directors and others about the potential of individuals with disabilities can be influenced, and hopefully even changed.

Referenced Materials

Mazurek, N., & Shoemaker, A. (1997). Career self-efficacy in college students with disabilities: Implications for secondary and post-secondary service providers. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED 412 708).

Scott, S. S., Wells, S., & Hanebrink, S. (1997). Educating college students with disabilities: What academic and fieldwork educators need to know. American Occupational Therapy Association, Inc.

Yuker, Harold E. (1988). Attitudes toward persons with disabilities. Springer Publishing Company.