Working with People with Disabilities

Disabilities primarily fall into three main categories—physical, intellectual, and the ones we in the mental health profession are most acquainted with, mental or emotional disorders. This is not to say that these disabilities don’t overlap. They frequently do, however, it’s important to clearly understand the differences and the unique qualities and psychosocial impact of each category. It’s imperative to point out here that any and all disabilities bring with them stigma and prejudgment, not unlike racial and ethnic stereotyping. Some common responses to people with disabilities include talking down to them, avoiding them, bullying, and other abusive behavior.

Disabilities come in all shapes and sizes. Many are quite visible, like people in wheelchairs who use walkers and people who are blind. And there are others without visible disabilities, like deaf people or those with heart or respiratory issues. Some disabilities are developmental, meaning that they are existent from birth or early childhood, like cerebral palsy or spinal-bifida, but others are traumatic, with later onset, such as spinal cord injuries, traumatic brain injuries, or amputees. People with physical disabilities are often misunderstood to have other intellectual or mental disabilities and are often judged unfairly to be incapable of being functioning social, adults.


Intellectual disabilities, or as it used to be called, mental retardation, can be related to a number of different causes, i.e. Down’s Syndrome, cerebral palsy or brain injury. People with these related disabilities have the most stereotypes put upon them in terms of being social outcasts, weirdos, or freaks.

Mental illness clearly carries with it plenty of stereotypic biases as well. People with bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, or personality or identity disorders, have tremendous social alienation issues to deal with as well. But those of us in the mental health field have greater familiarity with this particular population, and are, hopefully more accustomed and comfortable interacting respectfully with them than perhaps with those with other disabilities. This is largely due to the level of exposure to and education about these various disabilities.

I have been a psychotherapist for forty years, and I have had cerebral palsy all my life and have used a wheelchair for most of it. My life experiences have brought with them the dichotomy of being the stereotyped disabled person, with all the biases and social prejudice that comes with it—and as an educated, professional healer. The combined awareness brings me the opportunity to deepen my senses around human variation and my desire to broaden my respect for all.


RFT Book Cover

Respect-Focused Therapy (RFT) is a foundation on which all modalities and techniques used in therapy can be strongly grounded, in order to produce sound, effective outcomes. This approach offers clients the opportunity to gain experiential understanding of being respected, possibly for the first time, from the therapeutic relationship and then be able to heal old wounds by creating more respect for self and others in the therapeutic process.