Channeling my experience into advocacy

Jennifer Pearlstein shares her experience as a blind clinical psychology graduate student turned advocate.

About the Author

Jennifer G. Pearlstein, M.A., is a doctoral candidate in clinical science at the University of California, Berkeley, and a pre-doctoral clinical intern at the University of Washington. Jen began progressively losing her vision as a teenager and has been legally blind for over a decade. She writes about her experiences navigating academia with a disability and publishes work aimed at increasing the representation, equity, and inclusion of people with disabilities in psychology. Across her research, clinical work, and advocacy, she strives to improve mental health care. 

When I began my clinical psychology training as a blind graduate student, I knew I would encounter access barriers. How would I administer standardized clinical assessments? How would I  access paperwork and medical records? Where would I turn for accommodations in activities outside my coursework, like research and clinical practice?

I scoured the internet for resources. I read every paper related to navigating disability-related accommodations for psychology graduate students I could find.  I contacted listservs to connect with any blind psychologist who has experience traversing this terrain. Out of necessity, I became an expert in the competencies required of my program in order to discern how I could develop those competencies despite significant accessibility barriers. I worked closely with clinical training directors, mentors, and supervisors to reasonably accommodate my training.

I will be forever grateful that my program’s clinical director served as a partner and advocate with me in this process. As I shared what I was learning and the significant gaps in resources, she suggested, “you could write a paper about this.” Could I? Fairly new to graduate school, I was unaware of the diverse outlets available for publications on topics like this. I was already writing a blog about my experiences, but pursuing professional publications would mean a different audience, style, and scope. Am I the right person to write about training and disabled experiences? I only offer a single perspective. And I am not an expert in training or education, nor have I even finished my degree.  With assurance from my clinical director, I set on a path of channeling my experiences into advocacy through professional publications.

I began assembling teams across my home institution and the broader field of psychology to gain more diverse perspectives. Alongside professionals across career stages, I published guidelines to address the barriers faced by clinical psychology trainees with disabilities (Pearlstein et al., 2021). With a fellow grad student, I published a paper about the experience of trainees with disabilities in clinical supervision (Pearlstein and Soyster, 2019). I am involved with ongoing projects in progress to address other aspects of the disabled experience, including characterizing attitudinal and structural barriers among others.

What I have come to appreciate in this process is that I have an important and valuable perspective because of my experience. Like many people with disabilities, I have had to learn how to navigate inaccessible systems by advocating for myself, creatively problem-solving, and flexibly and open-mindedly experimenting with diverse assistive tools. I discovered what mentors, supervisors, and clinical leadership could do to enhance or hinder my access. In the process, I developed a lot of ideas about how training could be improved for people with disabilities.

Beyond enjoying the catharsis of sharing some of these difficult experiences and recommendations for improvement, I feel empowered to try to shape the field for the next generation of disabled psychologists. Disability is an important facet of diversity that warrants attention and support. Psychologists with disabilities are underrepresented, in large part due to the often-unsurmountable access barriers and the relative dearth of resources available. So now I am writing the pieces I wish I had available to me when I started this process with hopes that my advocacy can contribute to greater equity and inclusion for psychology students and trainees with disabilities.

References

Pearlstein JG and Soyster PD (2019) Supervisory Experiences of Trainees With Disabilities : The Good , the Bad , and the Realistic. Training and Education in Professional Psychology, 13(3): 194–199. https://doi.org/10.1037/tep0000240

Pearlstein JG, Schmidt AT, Lund EM, et al. (2021) Guidelines to Address Barriers in Clinical Training for Trainees With Sensory Disabilities. Training and Education in Professional Psychology. DOI: 10.1037/tep0000367

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