Since the time she can remember, Mercedes Zapata had always wanted to be a psychologist. Hailing from a biological family where both parents lived with mental health challenges including schizophrenia piqued Zapata’s interest to pursue the career. “But my [adoptive] parents weren’t expecting to hear when I was 10 that I had a degenerative eye disease,” Zapata said. Due to her condition, Zapata is considered legally blind, her vision loss is such that she will eventually be fully blind.
“Before I decided to go to the UC Berkeley doctoral program in school psychology, I tried to find any school psychologist who had visual impairment or blindness,” the California-based school psychologist told Re:Set. “I didn’t find anyone.”
When she applied, she tried to downplay her impairment as she wasn’t sure how it would be perceived, feeling the pressure to establish her credibility before disclosing it. The program teaches students how to create accommodations for children with disabilities, but Zapata felt their response centered around what they thought she could achieve.
“[It was] a little bit more…of let’s focus on the things that we think are possible for you rather than pave a way for you to do things that you want to do,” she said. They pointed her in the direction of pursuing more non-visual work like therapy and getting licensed as a psychologist rather than creating accommodations for her interests in tasks like psychoeducational assessments.
The challenges that exist
People with disabilities appear to be underrepresented in America, both as practitioners and students of psychology, researchers Erin Andrews and Emily Lund concluded in 2015. Their paper noted that although 19% of Americans live with some form of a disability, there are no definitive numbers on how many psychologists meet that definition.
For Zapata, some of her apprehensions in the field stemmed from the visual fatigue psychoeducational assessments can provoke. It requires the psychologist to pay attention as children play with blocks or point to tiny images in a book. She feared that due to her visual impairment, she would miss some details leading to the test results being invalid, leaving her feeling anxious. She also received feedback from the faculty that she was “cold and rigid” because she often couldn’t read social cues or facial expressions in group settings. This left Zapata feeling scared because she wanted to be a high performer.
“You have to be twice as competent to have the same flexibility and opportunity.”
As a way to abate this, in her current line of work she focuses more on social emotional assessments which focus on interviewing and counseling. “You have to be twice as competent to have the same flexibility and opportunity,” Zapata reiterated.
A study in Rehabilitation Psychology revealed that psychology trainees with disabilities face significant barriers with most reporting that they had experienced discrimination based on their disabilities. This discrimination and prejudice make it more difficult for them to get placement and be competitive, particularly for internship placements and practicum sites, noted Erin Andrews, the co-author of the paper.
“College is not exactly made with disabled people in mind,” Marie*, a 26-year-old student from Tennessee, said. The psychology major lives with several autoimmune conditions that cause mobility issues and functioning challenges, especially in her hands.
“It can be difficult to adhere to the same pathways and timelines that my abled peers can achieve,” Marie told Re:Set. Despite being in a psychology program where sensitivity is key, she pointed out that she has been mocked by her peers when she has received accommodations like extended testing time and they have “[chalked] it up to laziness or being fat.”
Her conversations with other people who live with disabilities has made her realize that a lot of their needs aren’t being met and the current education on navigating clients with disabilities is lacking.
“Bad experiences can make [people with disabilities] much less likely to access it in the future when they need it,” Marie said. This is where she believes current and aspiring practitioners like herself with lived experiences of disabilities can intervene to improve the quality of mental health services being imparted.
Understanding clients through lived experience
“I have been connected to disability culture, disability history, art, disability communities and I see this as an advantage,” Zapata said, adding that she is able to support children according to where they are in their journeys with their disability.
“I’m not going to impose disability pride,” Zapata said. As a person with a disability, she understands the importance of not pushing children to immediately accept it. Instead, she prioritizes affirming their own experiences with it.
As someone who has an acquired disability, she is able to provide relief for the students she works with and normalize it for them as a living example. Zapata reiterated that the way that schools handle disability is still from the medical model and children can “pick up the emotional resonance” that is created by the discomfort that abled people, especially adults, associate with living with such conditions. “When there is somebody [like me] who has more of an embodied presentation, then it’s ‘cool,’” she added.
For people with disabilities considering a career in mental health services, Zapata said, “Give yourself permission to do things at your own pace to follow your own process rather than trying to approach the standard.”