Adjusting to Disabilities

Adjusting to disabilities is different for those born with disabilities than those with an acquired disability. Also, whether or not the disability is visible makes a difference in how they perceive themselves and how others view them. People will avoid people with disabilities (PWD) or treat them as if they are not an equal. If you have a mental illness, people may not understand why you cannot perform certain activities or tasks, or interact with the community. For those with a physical disability, they may be seen as being unable to do certain things, or limited because they are a wheelchair user or blind.

In both these examples other people’s perceptions are what limits the individual before they even begin to deal with their own understanding of their disability. People with a high level self-esteem, good support system, more economic resources and social supports have a better experience and are less likely to face the same barriers as those who do not. The focus of community is about the PWD’s right to engage in and maintain gainful employment and access to resources. This creates barriers in different communities that feel if a person with a disability has to work, then the family is not performing their duty in the family to take care of them. Working can have such a positive impact on a PWD. It allows for social interaction, the ability to learn new skills, builds self-esteem, enables them to make their own money, and be independent. Understanding how culture plays a part in disability will go a long way in helping the client and their family members support their loved one.

People adjust to disability through stages of adjustment. Professionals used to think the stages were linear; research is showing that adjustment to disability is NOT linear. The social model is more accepted and is a recurrent model to adjustment of disability. It is more cyclical rather than sequential.

Counselors that follow the linear model feel like they have to go through the stages before someone is going to be ok. Sometimes with the linear model clients may feel like they have to go through the phases a certain way, or they cannot move forward. The linear model does not take into consideration the individual differences of people. Some people acquire a disability and they may feel like there is nothing they can do about it, that their life is over. Others may be disappointed, but realize there is nothing they can do to change it. They may ask themselves, alright what do I need to move forward? Life happens and shifts, we have good days and bad, and the newer model leaves room for human error and necessary adjustment.

Also, understanding your own view of disability and how that may impact how the client feels is important. Perhaps the client needs more or less time than you deem appropriate for moving them through different stages.

Another aspect to consider is the different types of disabilities and how the client identifies themselves in respect to their disabilities. When people have degenerative diseases they will go through the different cycles and have to keep adjusting, so they may experience depression. Mental Health issues are usually hidden issues, very cyclical, and difficult to proceed through life because you may not know when something will pop up, should you disclose? If so, what will happen if you do? Invisible disabilities have to be proven, which reinforces “I have a problem.” This can be problematic and difficult to address.

Some people with congenital disabilities do not identify as having that disability. Also, those with chronic diseases, such as diabetes, AIDS, Crohn’s disease or cancers may not be visible. Folks do not necessarily talk about it because they go into remission. People adapt and find ways to live happily that may not match up with what society has in mind for them.

Statistically, most people can function in society with the right types of support being made available to them. Other disabilities may include cognitive disabilities, stroke, other types of brain injuries, Down Syndrome, visual or hearing impairments, chronic pain, or other physical disabilities. One cannot really categorize people based on their general disability, for example: if a person is classified as legally blind, that may not necessarily mean they cannot see anything, so just because you think you know what a disability is, it does not mean you get it. Do your research. Find out how their disability impacts them, and work on a treatment plan that is inclusive of internal and external aspects of their life so that the person can be treated as a whole in a way that works for them, the community and their loved ones.

There was a story on the other night of a football player who was in a car accident that left him with bilateral leg and hand amputations. He told his mom he wanted to kill himself, but he did not have the hands to do it. He never thought he would be an athlete again, but he was given 100,000 dollars worth of prosthetics and it changed his life. He began running track, teaching work out classes; and is hoping to compete professionally in track. He had social and community support that helped him emotionally and financially. If his mother had enabled him, and done everything for him, or if his coaches and therapists had told him there were limits to what he could do, he may have found a way to kill himself and give up on life. The people you are surrounded with and the way you see your future make a big difference in your success.


  1. Michael Maharajh · February 26, 2014

    Great article.


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