Abnormal No More: A DARN Conference on Teaching Disability in Psychology
Carolyn Shivers, Associate Professor of Psychology, Niagara University
Many of us were taught to be ableist in our psychology training. This was, of course, not done on purpose; our professors did not intend to further discrimination and marginalization of disabled individuals through their work and teaching. However, ableist ideas have long been deeply embedded in the field of psychology, just as they have been in society as a whole. In the Disability Advocacy and Research Network (DARN), we work as denizens of psychology to increase access and inclusion, provide community, and promote unlearning of such ableist beliefs.
In October of 2023, with the generous financial support of SPSSI, we hosted an online conference on the teaching of disability in psychology. Our esteemed presenters addressed numerous topics, including the history of disability in psychology, strategies to increase inclusions without sacrificing rigor in the classroom, sources of ableism, and common disability myths. We even learned how teaching of sensation and perception can be used as a way to enhance representation of disability and promote disability pride. Because minoritized individuals experience disabilities at higher rates than majority group members, a panel about intersectionality provided a crucial conversation. These presentations are available on YouTube and on the DARN website.
Although a brief article cannot possibly cover the richness of a two-day conference, we think it is important to reiterate some of the basic ideas. In psychology, as alluded to by the title of our conference, we teach about psychiatric disabilities under the heading of “Abnormal.” Even as we move away from institutionalization, we still tend to pathologize psychiatric differences, focusing on how to “cure” or “manage” psychiatric symptoms, rather than including ideas of how society defines what is “normal” and “expected” from emotions, cognitions, and behavior. This kind of instruction reinforces the medical model, a model of disability in which the disability lies entirely within the person, so any strategies to address the condition must be therapeutic, aimed at minimizing or eliminating the symptoms.
A more inclusive alternative to the medical model is called the social model. Under the social model, disability is not caused by internal traits, but by the structures of society. We can take the example of psychiatric disability as an illustration of how psychology takes a medical model approach to viewing the problem within the individual rather than taking society into account.
As psychology instructors, clinicians, and researchers, understanding the nuances of disability – beyond the “abnormal,” diagnosis-focused viewpoint that many of us are accustomed to – can go a long way in helping us move the field in a more inclusive and accessible direction.