Managing Anger When Living With Disability, Part I

An interview with Dr. Jennifer Gibson, Clinical Psychologist

interviewed by Dr. Gina Simmons

Many people will suffer from a disability some time in their lives. Some are born with physical disabilities such as hearing or vision impairments. Others suffer injuries or illnesses that render them disabled, while some suffer debilitating mental illness like bi-polar disorder or schizophrenia. Many people living with disability suffer unique challenges managing anger and the angry behavior of others. Dr. Jennifer Gibson, an expert on the psychology of disability, generously agreed to this interview. I hope you find her comments as fascinating and informative as I do.

Dr. GS: You developed a model of identity development to help professionals better understand those living with disability. How did you first become interested in the psychology of disability?

Dr. JG:  My interest in Disability Psychology evolved over many years. My career goal of becoming a psychologist started when I was eight, growing up in a family filled with dysfunction. I knew then that I wanted a different life for myself than the one I was growing up in. Through my limited knowledge of psychologists – my weekly dose of Bob Newhart, playing the role of a psychologist – I learned that understanding one’s problems is the beginning of change. And, though my speech was impacted by Cerebral Palsy, talking to others – and listening – were my innate gifts. Family members often confided their worries and problems to me; from teen pregnancy to hidden physical abuse. “Confidentiality” was my middle name. I valued people’s trust. It provided validation when many of my peers laughed and ridiculed my existence. I grew up an underdog. With this, my empathy for other’s struggle was inherent.

Going to college was instilled in me from an early age. It was clear that I could not rely on physical abilities to get me through life as my family had. My parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles did not complete high school. The men worked construction and in factories; women were waitresses and “did hair.” Good or bad, balancing hot plates stacked up my arms was not my life’s destiny.

I majored in psychology at the University of California, Irvine in the early 1980s. I did not set out to make a career of working with people with disabilities. My goal was to not be stereotyped as the “disability therapist.” However, when hired during my senior year as one of four Student Directors for the Women’s Resource Center, it readily became clear that my role was to provide programming for women with disabilities. Anger and Women with Disabilities was the first workshop on the docket. From there, I became known as the “go to” for all things disability on campus. For example, during this time I also served as Teaching Assistant for the Human Sexuality course. The instructor asked if I would sit on a panel to discuss sexuality and disability. This was followed by a cascade of Psychology and Social Ecology professors inviting me to speak in their classes. I geared presentations towards their given course topic… and disability.

In graduate school, I financially sustained myself working for a litany of non-profits, serving people with disabilities. I applied for EVERY opened position. I rarely was called for interviews unless the work involved working with disability issues; Goodwill Industries, Fairview Hospital, to agencies providing life skills to individuals living independently in their own home. My steady work came from an Independent Living Center – a resource center for people with disabilities. And… this employment included health care benefits – my first “grown up” job. I held various positions there, including counselor and Peer Support Coordinator.

I continued my graduate studies at the California School of Professional Psychology, Los Angeles. There I explored an emphasis in Community/Multicultural Psychology where I learned about Dr. Derald Wing Sue’s Racial Identity Development and cultural competence. I noticed similarities, yet significant differences with Sue’s model and the people I worked with. I, too personally identified. In the late 1980s, I researched disability identity development. Though I found research pertaining to the social impact of disability, I did not find any existing literature discussing identity development. And… the seed for my interest and research in Disability Identity Development was planted.

Dr. GS:  Tell us about your model of Disability Identity Development and why it’s helpful for those who work with people with disabilities?

Dr. JG:  I developed the Gibson’s Disability Identity Development Model (GDIDM) over two decades while providing clinical services to people with disabilities. The model is intended to help mental health professionals better understand their clients with life-long disabilities so they can provide more competent clinical care. Educators, healthcare professionals and families have also found the model useful in their work with individuals with disabilities.

Gibson’s Disability Identity Development Model (2006)

STAGE 1: Passive Awareness: First part of life 0-?
Can continue into adulthood

•   No role model of disability
•   Medical needs are met
•  Taught to deny social aspects of disability
•   Disability becomes a silent member of family
•   Co-dependency/”Good-Boy/ Good-Girl”
•   Shy away from attention
Will not associate w/others with disabilities (Fear of being stereotyped)

STAGE 2: Realization:
Often occurs in adolescence/early adulthood

•   Begins to see self  as  having a disability
•   Self-Hate
•   Anger: Why me?
•   Concerned with how others perceive self
•   Concerned w/ appearance
“Superman / woman” Complex

STAGE 3: Acceptance: Adulthood

•  Shift focus from “being different” in a negative light to embracing self

 •  Begins to view self as relevant; no more –  no less than others

•  Begins to incorporate others with disabilities into life

 •  Involves  self  in disability advocacy and activism
Integrates self into majority (able-bodied) world

The GDIDM provides an understanding of clients with disabilities by giving insight into possible perceptions and struggles they may be experiencing. However, one should not assume that all people with disabilities must fit into a particular stage. Identity development of persons with disabilities can be fluid. For example: a person may have  reached  Stage 3  –   Acceptance, reverting  to  Stage 2 – Realization when faced with job discrimination  or lack of  dating partners.  The feelings of “Why me?” and anger can resurface, creating much frustration for the client since they may have believed they had worked through such feelings.

Dr. GS:  In your experience, what role does anger play for those with disabilities? In what way can it be helpful as a response to others? In what way do you think anger can be harmful?

Dr. JG:  Anger can propel a person towards change, or it can leave a person feeling defeated. Anger can play a large role in Stage 2: Realization. During adolescence through young adulthood, this may be the first time they truly understand the societal impact of their disability. This may be the first time they realize that others perceive them as different from their peers.

Adolescence can be a challenging time for many people. This is often when we begin to wean from our familial worldview. We realize there are countless views and individual differences to explore. From what clothes to wear to politics, we discover who we are and the value of societal norms. Fitting in is often a priority. Adolescents/young adults with disabilities, may, for the first time begin to fully grasp the societal implications of what the disability label represents in their life.

Stage 2 – Realization highlights some of the unique developmental stressors that may impact adolescents/young adults with disabilities. Anger may leave the young person feeling defeated at times. Self-hate and “why me?” can monopolize their thoughts, leading to isolation. Other times, anger can serve as motivation to fit in – to find ways of belonging.

I provided an example in Answer #2 with how anger can resurface once a person who has reached Stage 3: Acceptance. A person can find themselves thrown back into feelings of anger when confronted with disability-related societal obstacles.

Persons who experience later-onset chronic illness or acquired disability (CIAD) may find their sense of self suddenly and dramatically altered. These individuals may be faced with significant changes in their social and familial relationships and life roles. At the same time dealing with psychological distress, physical pain, prolonged medical treatment, and difficulties performing daily activities. Therefore, disability identity development for persons with acquired disabilities may resemble those with life-long disabilities; yet differ since they have a comparison of life with and without disability.

Dr. GS: Thank you Dr. Gibson for sharing your insights with us! Readers, be sure to subscribe to get part two and three of this informative interview. In part II, Dr. Gibson shares more about how to cope with anger and disability.

Jennifer Gibson, Ph.D. is a Clinical Psychologist, adjunct professor, researcher, writer, international speaker, and workshop presenter. For the past 30 years, she has worked as a therapist, administrator, educator, research associate and writer. She was staff psychologist of the Counseling Center and assistant director of Disability Services Center with the University of California, Irvine. Later, she became director of Students with Disabilities Services at the University of California, Davis. She is the author of more than fifteen professional articles and book chapters highlighting the Gibson Disability Identity Development Model. The most recent, Disability Identity Development of People with Low Vision or are Blind published in the October 2018 edition of the Journal of Education and Development highlights research implementing the Gibson Identity Development Model and Scale.

She is the proud mother of an adult son and an adult step-daughter, and the proud grandmother of two. For more information, see her website:

photo courtesy of Mark Morgan.