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Case Study – Psychology and Mobility Difficulties

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The following case studies were taken from: IPDPS – Improving Provision for Disabled Psychology Students project, HEFCE Strand Two Project, Universities of York, Middlesex and Aston, (information extracted and accessed October 2006).


Case A

Catherine is a postgraduate psychology student who has multiple sclerosis (MS) and uses a wheelchair to improve her mobility, though she can operate without one. When she was first diagnosed with MS she felt at a loss as to whom she now was, but studying for a degree in psychology gave her a purpose in life.
She chose to study psychology as she felt its social and scientific aspects were interesting, not because of her MS diagnosis, although she has found that psychology study has helped her to better cope with it. She has found that she has gained a better understanding of some of the social and personal changes and stigmatisation she has gone through with her illness. She feels that the course “helped me to understand my more negative cognitions and make them more positive”, even when at times she felt in despair, and that without this understanding things would have been much harder for her. Conversely, her experience with MS has also helped her better relate to the neuropsychological material covered in her course.
Catherine was not given much extra support by undergraduate tutors and lecturers, although she did not request any, due to lack of knowledge of what was possible. However, she feels that even if she had, there would not have been much that could have been done to assist her.
While she successfully completed her undergraduate degree, and was accepted for an MSc in clinical psychology, Catherine has had difficulties in gaining clinical experience and ultimately in being able to become a clinical psychologist. Given her illness, it was not feasible for her to travel between hospitals and visit patients, and she could not venture into prisons or schools. This also restricted the kind of research she was able to do in her undergraduate and MSc studies. She feels that “even if I had been completely wheelchair bound these things would not have been possible, but were made worse by the semi-invisibility of my disability”.

Case B

Ananda is currently doing her clinical psychology training. She has had both legs amputated, and therefore uses a wheelchair. One of the factors influencing her choice to study psychology was the lack of counselling or professional emotional support she received during and after her illness, “which made me think there was a gap, and I thought I’d be able to use my experience of trauma and disability to help others in same boat”. However, she now feels that she probably would like to work in child and adolescent mental health rather than in disability or health fields.
As both universities Ananda has attended have been located in cities, she has had physical access problems at both, both in terms of the parking facilities available, and just getting around campus. She has encountered poor attitudes from a few university staff members. For example, access to the library at one institution required Ananda to have keys to a number of lifts. However, the library security guard was unhappy about students having keys to these, “so he used to get really stroppy with me and once physically dragged a friend of mine out of the lift and made her go up the stairs in case she was going to use my lift access to rob the library! Never mind that we were in the middle of a very important discussion about some work we were doing together!”.
By contrast, academic staff involved in her current postgraduate course have made reasonable accommodations for Ananda, generally by asking her what she needs and discussing solutions with her. She is unable to physically access the main programme site, so she has been given a mobile phone to contact the course staff whenever she needs to, which she appreciates even though doesn’t use it. Staff also arrange to meet her at more convenient locations for tutorials and supervision sessions.
Ananda’s experience of disability has made her think critically about the way psychology has traditionally treated people with physical or mental impairments: “The subject is fascinating – the way it has evolved over the last century or so really interests me, in particular with regard to how minority groups (e.g. disabled people) have been treated by psychological research and therapy”. This has resulted in her focussing on finding or constructing positive representations of disability as a major component of all the research she has done, which she feels is a positive thing. But she is not critical of psychologists generally. Indeed, when comparing experiences in her previous jobs, Ananda has found that people in psychology have been very accepting of her condition and it’s really not been an issue interpersonally, saying that this is “probably because psychologists are all very lovely, accepting people!”.

Case C

Juliet is a single honours psychology student who uses a wheelchair. She has mobility difficulties resulting from severe muscle weakness that affects her whole body. Although she uses an electric wheelchair she is dependent on someone for a majority of physical activities. She chose to do a degree in psychology as she has always been interested in psychology and she intends to pursue a career in adolescent mental health. Her condition contributed to her choice of university but had no impact on her decision to study psychology.
For Juliet the most positive aspect of studying psychology is the lecturers, tutors and other students in the department: “The psychology staff that I have contact with are very perceptive, sensitive, practical and non-plussed”. Due to the nature of her condition she misses a lot of lectures and deadlines. However, since she has a good relationship with all her lecturers and tutors, she will often email or phone to let them know she will be unable to attend. Her personal tutor is sensitive and understanding towards her needs and negotiates deadlines with her. Overall, she feels that the psychology department go out of their way to make sure that she isn’t disadvantaged in any way because of her condition: they “don’t hesitate to ‘bridge the gap’ when required… I couldn’t fault the psychology department”.
Juliet feels that her current university has very little experience of any disabilities as severe as her own. She chose to live at home rather than in the halls of residence, after visiting a university that had a ‘disabled students’ block’: “Professionals had always recommended this uni for its ability to deal with students with a disability, and I was outraged that this was ‘as good as it gets’”. Although her experience has been largely positive, the impact of not ‘living-in’ has made it more difficult for her to fully integrate into her peer group.
She feels this would not be such a problem if she had better contact with other students during lectures. Unfortunately, due to the fact that her lecture theatres are steeply raked, with many steps, and entrances either at the top or bottom, she often ends up sitting on her own, either three feet above or below everyone else. Unsurprisingly, she finds this “very isolating”, and wishes lecture theatres were designed more like many theatres and cinemas, sloping gradually without the need for steps.

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