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Reflections of a disabled educational psychologist

My name is Emily, I am a recently qualified Educational Psychologist working in Doncaster, and I have a physical disability called Arthrogryposis Multiplex Congenita (AMC) a largely hidden disability which impacts my movement, mobility and dexterity. 

Disability and identity is one of my areas of professional interest. This article has been co-written and edited by Raquel, the Principal Educational Psychologist at Doncaster Educational Psychology Service. Raquel has Scoliosis, also a hidden physical disability that affects her mobility. We both trained at the University of Sheffield. We have written this article to share our reflections, personal and professional, and our views on the link between Disability and Educational Psychology, with the hope to provoke reflection and positively promote disability inclusion in the profession and in education. 

Throughout this article, we use identity first language (e.g. we use ‘Disabled people’, instead of ‘Person with a disability’) we appreciate that some individuals prefer to refer to themselves with person first language, for us, we are keen to promote the idea that being a Disabled person isn’t negative or something be paraphrased and that being Disabled can be an integral part of one’s identity. 

Where it began

Educational psychologists (EPs) are generally some of the most inclusive and child centred practitioners I have encountered. For me, entering the profession was the first time I was exposed to concepts such as the Social Model of Disability, othering, social constructionism, transformative research, social justice; the list goes on. Simply training to be an EP was a journey into understanding myself as a Disabled person and understanding the systemic difficulties that face Disabled children and adults. This led to carrying out my doctoral thesis research with other Disabled women; hearing their narratives about their experiences of adolescence, schooling and their identity. 

This was a transformative process for me and the participants; considerable learning took place regarding identity, disability studies and intersectionality; learning which I consider to be extremely important to my case work today. A further refection I had was that, as a Disabled person, only when I reached a doctoral level of education did I gain a deeper understanding of what my own experiences and identity meant in a wider context. 

I think this learning should be embedded into the curriculum, for Disabled children and their peers, to learn about disability as early as possible. I also wonder if it would be beneficial to add more content for EPs in training on disability awareness, disability studies, rights and the experiences of Disabled people. Perhaps this could connect the two disciplines and empower EPs in a subject area that can feel separate from Special Educational Needs (SEN), but in my view is integral to it.

Work me and disabled me

Working in disability and being Disabled is a fascinating, challenging and rewarding career choice and I feel privileged to be in the position of Educational Psychologist and to create change in any small way that I can. However, managing my emotional responses to the unfairness, lack of inclusion, bureaucracy and segregation in schools is something I must ‘carry’ on a daily basis. 

This has been somewhat of an unexpected personal challenge. I have needed additional supervision and containment as a result of hearing about what are essentially discriminatory systems on a regular basis. This is especially poignant for me having been a child who was refused entry to mainstream secondary school as a statemented child, through the (now) EHCP consultation process. I have to separate my personal and professional self, to a greater extent than most, for my work as an EP to be impactful. 

Holding back on some of my opinions, whilst advocating and being an ally can be exhausting. Particularly in an education system that seems to be heading more and more towards separation of Disabled children from their peers. I am complicit in a system and a process which has ‘harmed’ me and one which I largely disagree with. As EPs, I feel that we all advocate for Disabled children and need to be aware of the unconscious bias we may hold when we give advice, and must be mindful of the inherent ableism within the education system to that we can challenge this when needed. 

Sorry but… this is not very accessible

Between the driving, sitting on tiny chairs in noisy classrooms (surely this isn’t just an issue for me), carrying weighty assessment kits, the need for considerable verbal communication skills, flexibility of thinking and need to manage high stress levels…I don’t consider this to be a particularly inclusive profession. I am not sure how else to reflect on this, perhaps I am just unearthing this ironic piece of information to be looked at more closely. 

I have not seen this career route being widely promoted to Disabled people and naturally, with the connection between disability and socio-economic barriers alone, the road to becoming an EP is bumpy. Further to this, Disabled people are less likely to obtain a postgraduate degree or above (ONS, Disability and Education, UK; 2019), perhaps due to the lack of access and/or not having the adequate support and expectations. The motto of the UK disability rights campaign reads ‘nothing about us without us’, yet I wonder how we are applying this in EP practice and how we could improve access to our profession for Disabled people.

Recently, due to the Covid-19 pandemic we have seen a rise in the use of virtual practice. EPs have developed brilliantly creativity ways to ensure that we can continue to reach children and that our services are accessible. This has not only opened up a myriad of new ways of communicating with young people, but has also provided opportunities for Disabled EPs to work accessibly and I sincerely hope these practices are still available when we regain normal working ways, as I am sure they could benefit EPs with physical disabilities, mental health conditions and chronic illnesses.  

Disability identity and connection

I often find myself the only Disabled educational professional in the room, or at least the only one to ‘come out’ and say so. Educational Psychologist’s main work is with children and young people with SEN and disabilities, but with so few Disabled EPs and educators, I wonder what Disabled adults could add to our knowledge and our practice? 

In my view, our profession advocates extremely well for children and young people and there is a wealth of work and research being carried out into pupil voice. Advocating for children and families is a highly important facet of our role, however, I wonder if we really are capturing a ‘true’ narrative with so little empowerment, and indeed oppression, of Disabled children and young people in schools. Personally, when I was a teenager I completely rejected the idea that I was Disabled. I simply wanted to be like everyone else, something I find to be a common feeling amongst children in my case work. 

The evidence from disability research tells us that owning the label and embracing your status as a Disabled person can lead to positive outcomes. Putman (2005) considers ‘disability identity’ to be ‘a key adaptive psychosocial construct in the lives of many people with disabilities’; ‘coming out’ as Disabled is to directly challenge the medical model and the expectations set upon a person societally, which can be empowering. However, there is a considerable lack of research in the area, particularly with young people. 

Personally what compounded my wish to seen as be ‘normal’ was having no role models, nor Disabled peers, which continued to be the case into adulthood. This makes me wonder how Disabled young people can fully share their aspirations with an EP if they haven’t seen people who look them in a variety of roles.

My first meeting with my peer mentor in the first year of the DEdCPsy was with Raquel. When we met, an initial natural conversation took place, in which we shared our experiences of being Disabled with each other.

We were connected. Our experiences, though cross cultural, were so very similar.

Multiple passionate conversations regarding inclusion, ‘the system’ and disability rights ensued. Going forward, this led to real change across our service, as Raquel and I now work together in Doncaster, promoting inclusion wherever and however we can within the Local Authority. 

We feel that our shared experience, conversations and reflections hugely influence our practice, approach to families and children. Our drive is our passion to ensure that young people experience better inclusion than we did.

Dis/Advantaged!

Being Disabled in this role has brought with it considerable advantages. Between us, Raquel and I have experienced surgery, corrective treatments, physiotherapy, hydrotherapy, occupational therapy and in school support. We have sadly faced discrimination, systemic and individual. We use these experiences to relate to parents and pupils, where appropriate we share it with them. 

There is often a shift in tone from parents and young people, when we ‘come out’ as Disabled in an interaction and explain that we have had similar experiences. We tend to stay in our lane and share in the context of physical disability rather than trying to stretch our experiences to those who are Neurodivergent or have Learning Disabilities as we feel this isn’t necessarily equitable. 

Naturally all EPs aim to be empathetic, reflective practitioners, but we do feel that our positionality as Disabled women, gives us a unique insight into the disability experience and we try to let this trickle down that ‘golden thread’ in our consultations, direct work and statutory assessments. Furthermore, we have read our own hospital, school and Educational Psychology reports; good and bad.

Our reflection? You can feel those words. 

We always have in mind when we are writing, that Disabled children and young people become Disabled adults, who will reflect on their childhood and how they were treated, spoken about and advocated for. For able EPs we feel it is important to engage with the Disability community, researchers and writers, to be a critical friend to schools and to be an ally.  

As a summary we would like to share with you a ‘You poem’ that was developed as a final product of Emily’s thesis (based on ‘I poems’ used within ‘The listening guide’; Gilligan, 2015) to create a collective voice from the position of asking others to change their approach towards young people with disabilities. ‘You’ is meant in a collective sense to address both society and those involved in any way in supporting us. We hope this helps you to reflect on our experiences as Disabled people and your own practice. 

You need to acknowledge us

You don’t need to fix us

You need to be recognise us

You need to hear us

You must give us autonomy

You need to guide us

You have to connect us

You must teach us about us

You need to give us space

You have to give us our information

You need to allow us to be angry

You should allow us to complain

You should make sure we know that we count


References

Gilligan, C. (2015). The Listening Guide Method of Psychological Inquiry. Qualitative Psychology, 2 (1), 69-77.

ONS (2019). Disability and Education, UK.

Putnam, M. (2005). Conceptualizing disability: Developing a framework for political disability identity. Journal of Disability Policy Studies, 16 (3), 188-198.



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