Students

Jo Roos on life as a student with a disability
Disability – attitude is everything The Society’s Clinical Psychology Training and Disability: Information, Guidance and Good Practice Guidelines (download from www.bps.org.uk/jkeb) were developed to address issues faced by students with disabilities studying on the clinical psychology doctorate programme. But what is it actually like to be a disabled person studying on one of the most coveted courses of all?

Disability – attitude is everything

The Society’s Clinical Psychology Training and Disability: Information, Guidance and Good Practice Guidelines (download from www.bps.org.uk/jkeb) were developed to address issues faced by students with disabilities studying on the clinical psychology doctorate programme. But what is it actually like to be a disabled person studying on one of the most coveted courses of all?

Throughout my undergraduate degree I was unaware of the extent of my disability and the way in which it was affecting me. I immersed myself in the student lifestyle and denied anything threatening my ability to lead a full, although somewhat chaotic, ‘normal’ student life. Seven years later, I accepted a place on the clinical psychology doctorate programme with a knot in my stomach and a paralysing fear about whether I was capable of working at doctorate level. By this time my insight was sharper and I had become acutely aware of my own complex needs.

I had a disability, as defined by the Disability Rights Commission: ‘a physical or mental impairment which has a substantial and long-term adverse effect on the ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities’. Rumours led me to believe that to attain ‘equal opportunities’ was nigh on impossible in any well-established institution that has had no or little experience of individuals with ‘different needs’. I recall contacting one institution during the months leading up to the clearing house deadline, enquiring about current and recent experience of students with disabilities. To my annoyance, I was told that they currently do not have ‘wheelchair access’. I am not a permanent wheelchair user, but it was interesting to see old pre-judgements die hard.

Thankfully, my experience at the University of Manchester has been positive. I have found that clarity and a cooperative yet assertive attitude enables me to work closely with academic and clinical staff, to shape my programme of study in a way that is meaningful, offering the same opportunities and rights an able-bodied student would expect. The issue of teaching and clinical aspects of the course being accessible to potentially any student has been taken seriously, and any misunderstanding about this is quickly clarified with any visiting lecturers or course/clinical tutors.

I resolved to take a proactive role with my education from the outset, and my enthusiasm has been matched; the university’s disabled students office offers guidance and advice of the academic kind, and the Disabled Students Allowance is commissioned to meet the financial needs of making life and learning simpler when it comes to study. A ‘needs assessment’ is available to all students at any level with a disability of any kind. I am pleased to say that the criteria for absolute inclusion were driven more by the programme leaders than by people like me stamping their feet.
This is a key point. Although I still encounter ignorance and occasionally have my needs dismissed, I refuse to relent and give permission for anyone to make me feel inconvenient or uncomfortable about my disability. You have to stand up and be counted: I don’t know anyone who isn’t occasionally difficult or labelled, and I’m pretty sure that it not just about the company I keep. We all struggle with the barriers and the opportunities that present during the course of our lives. The Disability Discrimination Act 2005 has been developed to provide equal opportunities, and the first challenge is to stand up and be counted, and be more than just a label.
So what of the Society report’s recommendations? The idea of a mentoring scheme to match students with disabilities to qualified clinical psychologists could offer normalisation and reassurance that would go a lot further and have a more pervasive positive effect than statements of accessibility.

Another idea, the guaranteed interview scheme for those with a disability who meet the minimum requirements, prompts mixed feelings. Although every applicant would seize advantage in a highly competitive field, never knowing whether you achieved an interview because you are disabled or because you are outstanding can compound feelings of having ‘special needs’. The idea of ‘positive competencies’ – recognising that individuals with disabilities may offer additional competencies that are not academic or clinically developed – is perhaps a preferable option. I would choose recognition for insight and personal experience rather than ‘special treatment’ and ‘positive discrimination’ every time. As the document outlines, more research needs to be done, especially into what the preferred options of students with disabilities would be.

As stated within the document, ‘attitude is everything’; there will be those who still feel that disability issues don’t apply to them, and to whom this will be just another document. This is where testimonials of disabled students and standing up and making a difference count. This report may be the beginning of an evolution of recommendations and gold standards, thankfully starting with good practice guidelines that boast insight and a thorough overview of barriers and opportunities in studying at trainee level.

Jo Roos is a trainee clinical psychologist at the University of Manchester and is a member of the Society’s Standing Committee for the Promotion of Equal Opportunities.

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