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Why Do There Seem to Be So Few Disabled Psychologists?

The Disability Advocacy and Research Network is providing much-needed community.

Key points

  • A quarter of adults have a disability, yet only about 2% of psychology faculty disclosed a disability.
  • While social psychology research on racial and ethnic prejudice is relatively well-developed, there is little on disability or its intersections.
  • Challenges include a lack of mentors and role models, systemic accessibility barriers and discrimination, and a leaky pipeline.
  • The Disability Advocacy and Research Network provides community, mentorship, and advocacy for disabled psychology scholars and allies.

By Kathleen Bogart, Ph.D., Lisa G. Aspinwall, Ph.D., and Afrooz Ghadimi

Disability can be considered the largest minority group in America; about 25% of adults in America had a disability in 2018 according to the CDC. However, people with disabilities are severely underrepresented in the field of psychology. Only about 2% of psychology faculty at all APA-accredited programs disclosed a disability.

As the field devoted to understanding human behavior, emotion, and cognition, it is surprising that the largest minority group is not well-represented among our professionals and in our research and teaching. Specifically, disability as a topic of study clearly falls within the domain of social, personality, and health psychology, our own subdisciplines. While social and personality research on minority identities and prejudice involving race, ethnicity, and LGBTQ+, status is relatively well-developed, there has been less attention on disability and ableism in social psychology. Further, disability intersects with all these other identities, meaning many disabled psychologists are multiply marginalized.

 Afrooz Ghadimi, used with permission
DARN logo. A profile illustration of a dark-skinned femme marching. The person has a dark pink bob, wears a light yellow long sleeve shirt, kelly green shorts, and their prosthetic leg is baby blue. One arm is held high in a protest fist and the other hand holds a flag. The flag has a black background with the Psi symbol filled in diagonally with dark pink starting at the bottom, followed by light yellow, white, baby blue, and kelly green.
Source: Afrooz Ghadimi, used with permission

Our Stories

Based on our own experiences as disabled scholars, the three of us (Kathleen Bogart, Lisa Aspinwall, and Afrooz Ghadimi) have founded the Disability Advocacy and Research Network (DARN) to build a disability community in psychology.

Kathleen was born with a disability (facial paralysis), and her experience adapting and communicating with others led her to pursue social psychology. In college and graduate school, she ached for peers and role models who identified as disabled but found none. Ph.D. training in psychology research follows a mentorship model, and because there were few social psychology researchers studying disability, she struggled to find an advisor. Fortunately, she found a supportive ally in her Ph.D. mentor Linda Tickle-Degnen at Tufts University. Kathleen now researches ableism and hopes to build community for others interested in researching similar topics, and/or who have experienced ableism.

For Lisa Aspinwall, who sustained serious wrist injuries in graduate school and now works by voice recognition, the experience of being a faculty member with a disability revealed both the lack of information related to conducting research and teaching with a disability and the lack of social support and community faced by people with disabilities, especially those who have rare and/or invisible conditions. Lisa hopes that DARN can not only bring disabled students and faculty together to share strategies for success but also educate the broader educational community to respect and encourage students' use of accommodations.

Afrooz Ghadimi’s interest in disability advocacy began after she got accommodations during the final year of undergrad. For most of her education, she had not considered her invisible disability to be “disabling” enough to seek accommodations. Afrooz attributes this to internalized stigma, ableism (e.g., wanting to be “high functioning”), and a lack of comprehensive education on disability and accessibility issues. Recently, she connected with psychology students and faculty who shared her feelings of isolation and expressed a need for building community and encouraging connection. Afrooz hopes DARN can 1) be a platform for disabled psychology students and faculty to connect, collaborate, and find community, and 2) contribute towards overcoming all levels of stigma within the academic community.

Barriers in Psychology

To be clear, disability underrepresentation is not a problem unique to psychology. Advocates in fields such as STEM and medicine have also been speaking out about the underrepresentation of disability and other minorities. Stereotypes about what professionals in these fields look like and value often do not include minorities, which sends a message to marginalized people that they do not belong in these fields. Systemic accessibility barriers in education and employment can exclude people with disabilities. People with invisible disabilities may choose not to disclose their disability to avoid discrimination, limiting their ability to receive accommodations and perpetuating the myth that disability is rare. Those who do decide to pursue these career paths find themselves in a leaky pipeline. There are more minority undergraduates and grad students in these fields than there are minority doctorate holders and faculty. In our subdiscipline of social psychology, our professional association Society for Personality and Social Psychology (SPSP) reported that 4% of members identified as having a disability, and of those 63% were undergraduate or graduate students. Thus, it appears that faculty members with disabilities are underrepresented at SPSP, or they are reluctant to identify as such, perhaps out of fear of discrimination, while there is a large contingent of disabled students in the pipeline in need of mentorship and community. An apparent lack of community and mentors sends the message to students that they don’t belong in the field.

The Value of Disability Community

Like other minoritized groups, people with disabilities benefit from connecting with others who share their identity. These connections can foster self-esteem, disability pride, advocacy, and collective action. Additionally, there is a great need for mentorship as there are multiple aspects of research, teaching, and professional development that unfold differently for scholars with disabilities, starting with their entrance to the field and continuing through the navigation of disability accommodations, workplace technology, social interactions, and conference participation. Similarly, psychologists who acquire disabilities at a later career stage face unique challenges in maintaining employment and finding community.

Fortunately, SPSP and other psychology organizations are recognizing the need to improve disability inclusion. Thanks to a Community Catalyst Grant from SPSP, we developed a website. Our events, listserv, community directory, and Slack channel enable people to find community, mentors, information on advocacy and accommodations. DARN is working with SPSP and beyond to educate and advocate for greater accessibility in the field. If you are a psychologist in social, personality, health, or related fields, or aspire to be one, or if you are an ally, know that our community is here to help!

Lisa Aspinwall, Ph.D. is Professor of Psychology at the University of Utah, and Afrooz Ghadimi is an aspiring clinical psychology graduate student, visual artist, and the social media manager of DARN. They are founding members of DARN along with Kathleen Bogart.