Posted by: counselorcarmella | June 6, 2011

Insight Without Sight, Part One

This article appears in

CBM v. 25 - Psychology of Blindness


Editor’s Note: The following article is reprinted from Psychjourney, October 26, 2004.

During early college, I went for a consultation session with a local psychologist. When he asked me what I was majoring in, I told him I was studying psychology and that I wanted to be a counsellor. I thought he would be pleased that I planned to do what he did, and was hoping to hear all the reasons why he loved his job.

“Well,” he said hesitantly. “Non-verbals are pretty important, and you can’t see those. You could probably do okay, if you worked with a co-therapist.”

His response surprised me. It had never occurred to me that my inability to see body language would be so important that it could keep me from being an effective therapist. I’d been legally blind since birth, and was used to relying on my sense of hearing to gather necessary information in a variety of situations. Counselling was supposed to be about listening and being compassionate, wasn’t it?

Friends had always seemed especially comfortable sharing their difficulties with me. I had never felt disadvantaged or unsure of my connection with them simply because I couldn’t see how they were sitting, what they were doing with their hands, etc. I could hear the quiver in someone’s voice if they were crying. I could tell if a friend was angry or excited by how fast they were talking. Monotone speech alerted me to feelings of depression or hopelessness. Besides, didn’t the classic psychoanalysts sit behind the client’s couch so that client and counsellor could not see each other? I’d heard many reasons why Freud’s theory was no longer considered valid, but that one had never come up.

I did not allow myself to become too discouraged by that psychologist’s less than enthusiastic response to the idea of one day having me as a colleague. None of my psych professors, who were either Ph.D. psychologists or counsellors with masters degrees, seemed worried about my choice of majors. One of them even told me about a blind doctoral student he’d taught at another university, and how smart and capable that student had been.

When I began researching graduate programs, a friend put me in contact with a blind woman who was finishing her masters degree in counselling at a university I was interested in. This was the first time I’d been able to talk personally with another blind counsellor. I asked Lisa about things like taking notes, keeping track of time during sessions, handling the lack of non-verbal behaviours, and client reactions to her blindness and her guide dog. Her answers were encouraging. She assured me that such concerns were easily dealt with using some creativity and adaptive technology. She emphasized that what I had to offer was much greater than my visual limitations.

Though I did not attend the program Lisa was involved in, we have kept in touch over the last few years. She went on to pursue a doctorate in counselling. I was accepted into the only graduate program I applied to, and decided to specialize in marriage and family therapy. I was impressed by the respect and acceptance I immediately received from professors and classmates. The atmosphere was very collegial, and it seemed that all of us valued one another for our unique strengths and life experiences. I thrived in such an environment. Any adaptations or accommodations I needed were easily arranged with professors. Friends within the program were always willing to provide rides or help with more visual subjects, such as statistics. My guide dog helped me travel independently around campus, and a laptop with screen reading software allowed me to write papers, take notes in class, do internet research, participate in email discussion groups, and download syllabi and course materials. Most of my books were available on cassette from an organization that recorded textbooks for blind students. This was another indication to me that there were plenty of blind people working as counsellors. If there had not been a demand for such books, they would not have been recorded.

When I interviewed for my internship placement, my future supervisor asked me a lot of the same questions I had asked Lisa. I confidently responded, explaining how I could scan office paperwork into my computer so that I could fill it out, how I would set a clock to beep quietly ten minutes before the end of a session, and how Maggie would stay under my desk when clients were in the office. He offered me the position, and I readily accepted. Afterwards, he sent out requests on an email discussion list that he wished to contact other blind therapists working in college counselling centres. He spoke with several, who confirmed what I’d said, that blindness was really not a big deal, that adaptations were usually easily made, and that clients generally did not seem bothered by their lack of sight. He passed the contact information for several of these people along to me, and I had very helpful conversations with them myself. Once again, the confidence that I could do my job was bolstered by reassuring conversations with other blind counsellors who were successfully carrying out all the tasks I would be performing. They were honest about their difficulties, too. Though I was excited and optimistic, I did not forge ahead wearing rose coloured glasses, not that I could have seen the rosy color very well, even if I had been.



  1. I’m sure you are a WONDERFUL therapist, all the more because your listening skills have been honed to a razor-sharp edge. I’m SO glad you didn’t let that local psychologist infect you with his limiting mindset, and I’m glad you found Lisa.

    As a [sighted] coaching pioneer (and a founder of the ADD Coaching field), I find that the client’s attention on “looking appropriate” actually gets in the way. Although some coaches do work “in-person,” most work primarily by phone because we work globally. I work ONLY over the phone because I want the attention on the session, sans visual distractions. I also encourage them to fidget, pace, knit – whatever they know helps them focus (and they always do know, by the way). I doubt those “fidgets” would work if I could see them.

    I am also very “out” about my own ADD diagnosis, because I never want my clients to imagine that I have it all “handled” – and they all tell me that it helps to be reminded that “disabilities” don’t have to be stoppers. I imagine your clients are inspired, not put-off by the fact that you can’t see.

    I do realize that coaching and therapy are different technologies, but I wanted to add my two cents about “non-verbals” – one can HEAR them. In coach training (at least in mine and CoachU’s, where I got my non-ADD training), that’s part of the Listening curriculum. I’m darn good at it, but I bet you can listen rings around me!!

    My ONLY 2 questions are 1) how in the world do you manage a website?! I so rely on my eyes for that, and 2) Would you appreciate a proofer for spelling (I don’t make much of a deal out of that, by the way, but I would be happy to let you know privately the few key words that I noticed (meds, etc.) that I’ll bet your text reader doesn’t know!

    I commented on your ADD Brain article earlier this evening, suggesting a possible guest-post swap. Now I’m REQUESTING one. What a valuable point of view you have to offer! (In the header of my blog – so not readable as text, is the motto of my site: “You can’t let what you can’t do determine what you CAN!”)
    mgh (Madelyn Griffith-Haynie, SCAC, MCC – blogging at ADDandSoMuchMore and ADDerWorld – dot com!)

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