Group counseling can serve as a powerful antidote to the isolation clients often feel, whether they’re going through infertility, addiction or a range of other issues. This can be especially true for clients with disabilities, say Sheri Bauman and Linda Shaw, co-authors of the American Counseling Association-published book Group Work With Persons With Disabilities.
“For persons with disabilities, being in a group with others who have the same challenges can reduce the sense of isolation that often accompanies such circumstances,” they write in the book’s introduction. “… When members encounter others at different stages of dealing with an issue, they may develop a sense of hope that they, too, can make progress and feel more satisfied and fulfilled. For those whose disability may limit their opportunities to join with others, the feeling of cohesiveness that develops in groups can provide that sense of belonging that is so essential for optional human functioning.”
Bauman and Shaw are both professors in the University of Arizona’s Department of Disability and Psychoeducational Studies. They collaborated to write Group Work With Persons With Disabilities to use in a course they co-teach on group work.
Counseling Today sent them some questions, via email, to learn more:
The group dynamic in and of itself can be a powerful counseling tool. Please talk about how this can be the case, particularly, for clients with disabilities.
The therapeutic or curative factors in groups are well known. It’s not unusual for people with disabilities, particularly newly acquired disabilities, to feel that their experience is unique and that their disability can be socially isolating. Consequently, the following curative factors may be of particular relevance for persons with disabilities: universality (realizing one is not alone in their struggles); instillation of hope (seeing other members who are living full and productive lives, despite myths and misconceptions about disability); cohesiveness (the feeling of belonging that develops within a group); interpersonal learning (discovering, through group feedback, how others see them; having the opportunity to practice new skills in a safe environment); and the imparting of information (learning practical medical management skills and information about negotiating social and physical barriers in their environments). There are others but these are particularly relevant.
What would you want counselors to know about this topic — Especially counselors who may not have encountered it in graduate school?
Regardless of a counselor’s specialty area of practice, it is highly likely that sooner or later people with disabilities — who are about 20 percent of the population — will seek services from them and just like any other clients, many will be potential group members. People with disabilities have all the same kinds of issues any other person may have, so it is likely that they will appear in groups with a variety of themes. Often when people with disabilities seek assistance from a counselor, there is a tendency on the part of the counselor to assume that the disability itself is the source of the problem. Counselors should guard against the tendency to do this, as the issue may or may not be related to the disability. Just as they would approach any other client, the counselor must see and address the needs of the whole person. Including questions that invite discussion about disabilities (some are invisible) in screening interviews will alert the counselor that some accommodations may be needed, and give the counselor the opportunity to seek out additional information if unfamiliar with the needs of individuals with this particular disability as it applies to group participation. Although people’s disabilities are an important aspect of their identity, they are more than their disability. In our book, we provide counselors with background information and specific skills that will allow them to conduct groups with this clientele successfully.
In your opinion, what makes counselors a “good fit” for leading groups with clients with disabilities?
A counselor who is sensitive to diverse groups will be able to bring that sensibility to include persons with disabilities. Counselors who are able to reflect on their own potential biases and fears will bring honesty to the experience and serve as important role models to other group members. Counselors also need to be open to learning additional information that would increase their comfort level and competency in working with diverse group members, including those with disabilities.
People with disabilities are not different from other group members. Just as in working with any diverse group, having an understanding of the particular needs of these members is an important area of cultural competence.
Do you feel that, in general, counselors might have misconceptions or gaps in knowledge about group work with clients with disabilities?
Just as in the general population, persons with disabilities are often overlooked and misconceptions are common. Generally, people without disabilities tend to believe that disabilities have a much more negative impact on quality of life than do people with disabilities themselves, and they may see “successful” people with disabilities as heroic or especially admirable. Additionally, many people assume that the most important life task of a person with a disability is to “overcome” their disability. In point of fact, many people with disabilities see their disability as part of the natural diversity of people, and that the problem is not so much the disability itself, but rather the barriers to full participation in life created by physical and attitudinal barriers. Adjustment to disability is seen as a social, rather than a personal problem.
Many counseling training programs touch on disabilities only tangentially, and thus indirectly convey the message that this is not a group that counselors will encounter in their practices, unless they specialize in disabilities. The reality is that persons with disabilities may have relationship problems, financial problems, stresses, depression and all of the same kinds of concerns that bring nondisabled people to groups.
What advice would you give to a counselor who might want to refer a client to a group? What should they keep in mind? How can they find an appropriate group in their area?
Groups provide many opportunities for growth for persons with and without disabilities, as well as for the counselor. Groups offer many advantages over individual therapy, such as the chance to learn and practice new skills in a safe environment, to receive feedback from others, to learn from others’ experience, to develop relationships, etc.
Counselors referring a person with disabilities to a group should prepare the client just as they would any client when making a referral. In our book, we discuss a number of screening considerations, such the advantages of homogeneous vs. heterogeneous groups, which may be important in finding a good match for the client’s present needs. Logistical issues may also be important to consider, such as access, availability of public transportation, etc. These issues are discussed in detail in our book.
Be careful to avoid making assumptions about what a client can and cannot do; counselors sometimes underestimate the potential of clients to benefit from the group experience. The best expert on the client’s abilities and needs is the client him or herself.
What inspired you to collaborate and write this book?
[At University of Arizona,] we have graduate counseling programs in both school and mental health and rehabilitation specializations, and we both teach sections of a group counseling course that is required of students in both programs. When planning for this course, we were unable to locate a suitable supplementary text to address this important topic – so we wrote one! Additionally, we wanted to provide a resource to practicing group counselors who may feel that they would benefit from increasing their knowledge about disability and wish to expand their capacity for cultural competency and inclusiveness.
Group Work With Persons With Disabilities is available both in print and as an e-book from the American Counseling Association bookstore at counseling.org/publications/bookstore or by calling 800-422-2648 x 222
Sheri Bauman and Linda Shaw will be signing books at ACA’s 2017 Conference & Expo in San Francisco on Friday, March 17 from 1 to 2 p.m. Find out more at counseling.org/conference/sanfrancisco2017
About the authors
Sheri Bauman is professor and director of the counseling graduate program in the Department of Disability and Psychoeducational Studies in the College of Education at the University of Arizona. She has a background in public school counseling.
Linda Shaw is professor and department head in the Department of Disability and Psychoeducational Studies at the University of Arizona. Her background is in rehabilitation counseling; she is a licensed mental health counselor and a certified rehabilitation counselor and was a member of ACA’s Code of Ethics Revision Task Force in 2014.
Bethany Bray is a staff writer for Counseling Today. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org
Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.