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Disability and Humanity in Therapy

Dr. Deborah Buckwalter and her Moment of Meaning

Disability scares us.

Physical disability reminds the able bodied of our frailty and mortality, and mental disability gives us a glimpse into the invisible yet damaging world of cognitive and emotional distress. We humans love denial, so experiences with disability force us to confront reality. And that's uncomfortable.

Therapists are no exception. In our professional role we empathize with the pain of our clients, and physical disability can send us to unexpected places. We probably won't heal the hurt, so what can we do? How do the psyche and soma relate? Should we empathize with the physical pain or join with the inevitable emotional response?

Like every therapeutic relationship, it's going to depend on the circumstances.

Pasadena, California psychologist Dr. Deborah Buckwalter has spent most of her career helping people with physical and mental disabilities. Through her neuropsychological testing and psychotherapy, she helps people understand why their brains do what they do and how to function in relationships. She married a man with a physical disability (my interview with him here) and combines her personal experience with her professional training to help people thrive despite physical and cognitive limitations.

In the video above she tells the story of a man who has been through incredible physical and emotional trauma (all identifying information distorted, of course). Through that experience, she learns that sometimes the treatment of physical injury can overshadow the humanity of the victim as well as the caregivers. Dr. Buckwalter also took the time to answer some questions about her talk:


Ryan: Why did you choose to tell this particular story?

Deborah: There are moments of meaning in every encounter I have with clients, so in some ways it was hard to choose. But I think it was because the moments described in this story were so clearly transformative for both my client and myself. Particularly for me, there was a paradigm shift with respect to how I viewed myself in the context of my work.

Ryan: What do you hope viewers will learn from it?

Deborah: As therapists, most of us have significant training, skills development and experience such that we bring a lot to the room when we engage in the therapeutic process with our clients. In most cases we are trustworthy and clients can be reasonably assured we will join with them to do effective work. AND, like the viewers, we are also continually evolving and learning more with every therapist-client relationship and each situation.

Ryan: How was performing this on stage?

Deborah: I am not typically comfortable being in the spotlight. There is a reason I am the bass player and not the lead singer or guitarist in my band! I’m also not great at committing information to memory, so there were definitely some fears for me to face in getting up on stage. But the fact that much of the preparation and performance occurred with the support of an inspired leader and a team of fellow therapists made a huge difference in encouraging me to share my story.


Moments of Meaning is a non-profit event developed with the purpose of demystifying therapy and reducing therapy stigma through storytelling. Come see more talks at the website and connect through the Facebook page. It's a National Psychotherapy Day event, committed to demystifying and de-stigmatizing psychotherapy.

I'd love for you to join me at my Facebook and website as well.