How to Change an Industry Without Breaking It

You’ll notice today’s Flashback Friday isn’t a flashback. That’s because Google decided I don’t need access to my old blog right now for some reason. All my good intentions of taking a week to export all the old posts so I could have off-line access to them have come to nothing so far. Maybe once the book is out…

Speaking of, you can pre-order my debut nautical fantasy adventure novel Here!

Today I’d like to pose some questions to myself, and to you. They’re questions I never thought of, but should have had rattling around in my brain for years given how long I’ve been working toward being a therapist, and having been blind that entire time.

As with everything, and quite naturally I must say, counseling is an industry that was developed by sighted people with sighted practitioners and patients in mind. It makes sense to build infrastructure, tools, and techniques that the majority of people can use first, then adapt to minorities that might not be able to make use of innovations.

But counseling as a profession has existed for over a hundred years now. Isn’t it time to start nudging the industry into minority-oriented growth?

There are very, very few blind mental healthcare professionals. I’ve toyed with the idea of trying to start a network among us so we can support each other and work together to inspire the next generation to give our jobs a try. But for today my question is this:

In a setting where the client is already not at their best (that’s why they’re in therapy in the first place), how much change can I introduce to the expected setting in order to accommodate my needs without compromising my clients’ sense of comfort and stability?

In order to be at my best, to give the best client care possible, I have to do things differently than a sighted therapist. But for the client to receive that care there has to be some level of comfort with what happens in the therapeutic setting. If I throw a lot of blindness-generated behaviors and tools at a sighted person already struggling with social anxiety, anger, depression, or difficulty staying engaged with reality, it could prevent them from receiving care, or even cause harm.

It’s an incredibly daunting balance to try and achieve. “how much, how fast?”

In a way, I’m rather ideally situated to tackle this challenge early in my career. I work at a clinic that primarily treats children. Kids and teens don’t have pre-conceptions about what therapy should be like. Their impressions of adult behavior are still forming, so I have the unparalleled opportunity to normalize blindness in the workplace and disability accommodations in their eyes.

For example, I can’t glance at a clock to see how much time we have left in therapy. But if I were to set an alarm to go off 5 minutes before session end, what child isn’t used to their activities being scheduled by outside stimuli? Unlike an adult, there’s a lot less risk the client will feel rushed out of the room when the alarm goes off.

A child might not be distracted by the fact that I wear a jaw-bone headset, leaving my ears free to hear people around me but still able to use my iPad and its text-to-speech adaptations with complete privacy. But introducing the concept of blindness to a child with developmental delays could simply be one more barrier to building rapport, an essential element in the therapeutic process.

Then, too, I have to convince my colleagues that choosing not to use time-honored tactics isn’t me being young and idealistic or eschewing their good advice. I also have to prove, as with any new idea, that the way I adapt the therapeutic process for my needs will work just as well, albeit differently, as the ways they’ve been using for years. How much of their confidence can I rely upon?

Whenever a blind person enters a new profession these are the questions we have to consider.

  • 1. How much do I need to change the job, and change myself, in order to produce the right results?
  • 2. Can I convince my coworkers and superiors that I can produce the right results?
  • 3. Can I convince my clients that I can produce the right results?

There’s a delicate balance to be struck between learning how to use the tried-and-true methods of each industry, what we know works, and finding new ways to do the same job without compromising – or maybe even improving – the product simply by virtue of our different methodologies. But the confidence of those around us plays an integral role in the success of our efforts.

If you have a boss who constantly questions how you’re going to keep up, manage your workflow, meet goals and deadlines, or even just be able to use the breakroom kitchen equipment safely, it might feed into a lifelong perception of yourself that your skills and value and strengths are uncertain at best. You constantly have something to prove, and spend all your time and energy proving it so you never know what you’re truly capable of.

A boss who looks at an employee and says ‘ok, how can we help you succeed?” might think he’s doing you a favor – and has just sent you the message that he thinks you NEED him to do you a favor in order to keep up. This, in moderation and insofar as it’s the mentality applied to all employees regardless of disability, is not a problem. But too much of it, or being singled out by this ideology is no better than the situation above.

Again, working in the mental health profession gives me an advantage. Regardless of where on the spectrum from “infantilizing” to “empowering” any given employer may fall, simply being in this industry means she is familiar with and tries to take a strengths-based approach in her work as both an employer and a therapist. I have a common language to use when appealing to any boss’s best intentions. They practice looking for clients’ strengths every day, so why not try looking for mine as they should for any other employee?

A strengths-based approach to life is when a counselor, without invalidating struggles and challenges, helps a client to see their unique potential, abilities, and wisdom that has helped them cope successfully up to the point of receiving help. After all, the client clearly survived long enough to ask for that help, so something they’ve done in the past has worked. They’re not helpless, and they have already a lived history of solving problems they can draw upon.

So if I encounter an employer who questions my abilities to perform my required functions as a counselor, or a boss who tries to “take it easy on me,” I can direct them to this philosophy. I can remind them that I not only survived for 30 years before meeting them, but thrived in doing so. I have two university degrees, aced the National Counseling Examination, traveled extensively, self-educated on many mundane and exciting skills. I’ve written a book (psst! Pre-order it Here!), and a blog. I, too, am nowhere near helpless.

And I know that, over time, this mentality will be adopted by both my boss, and my coworkers. It may take time but I can pretty much guarantee that their mindsets will shift into one that is supportive and empowering toward peers with disabilities.

So, let me encourage any persons with disabilities reading this post to seriously consider entering the mental health professions. Social work, psychology, psychiatry, counseling, life coaching…those are all fields you can enter and have a reasonable expectation of having a positive impact on the industry as a whole. Not to mention the lives of your clients.

As for the clients themselves, they deserve more credit than my insecurities are pre-disposed to give them, too (insecurities caused by always having my competence questioned on basis of disability, I should add). After all, shouldn’t I be using this same strengths-based approach with them? If they’ve made it onto my couch, regardless of their age and experience level, I can be reasonably assured they have successfully adapted to unusual situations in the past. They can handle having a blind therapist.

4 Comments

  1. Wow. And again, Wow. I’m impressed with the clarity of your communication, and the depth of thoughts on this issue. (Okay, I realize that I’m editing my own post here, typing and erasing sentance after sentance, because of how well you communicate, and wanting to be so SO clear, just like you!) 😉 BTW I wonder if your inability to access Google has to do with their new two-part verification system? They announced it within the last couple weeks, so if you had to re-sign in to Google that might be creating the problem. I haven’t been brave enough yet to read through and see what I need to do; insert eye-roll here, yours and mine… 😛
    Thank you for your openness, and sharing this part of your journey! I know what you’re doing, both in your counseling and in your blogging, is so very needed! You go!!!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for all your encouragement. It really means a lot. Despite her protestations to the contrary, I had a pretty good writing teacher growing up, who supplied me with a constant stream of useful resources and great reading material to inspire me to do better work every time I put hands to keyboard.

      Like

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