Managing Anger While Living With Disability, Part II

Part II of my interview with disability expert, Dr. Jennifer Gibson

by Gina Simmons, Ph.D.

Dr. Jennifer Gibson

Dr. Gibson shared her personal story of living with disability in Part I of this interview series. Please click on the link to read the first part of this informative interview on managing anger while living with disability. Here, in Part II, Dr. Gibson offers help for those struggling with strong feelings of anger and resentment. There are special gems of insight for able-bodied folks and those living with disability too. Enjoy!

Dr. GS: In your work with those struggling with a disability, how do you help them cope with strong feelings of anger and resentment?

Dr: JG: I provide a safe space for individuals to express anger without fear of judgement or abandonment. Many people with disabilities have experienced critical stares from strangers leaving them feeling as if they were under a harsh spotlight. Some people make insensitive and critical comments. For instance – on a personal note, when I was pregnant there were several instances when strangers accused me of being selfish for having a baby. “How could you risk passing on whatever you have to your baby?” “How can you possibly raise that child?” they would comment, while not knowing one thing about me.

Some people with disabilities can often experience the opposite of the spotlight. They can feel invisible. Often spoken over and/or ignored.

People with disabilities may experience a sense of powerlessness over their lives. From dealing with medical professionals poking and probing one’s body, to social workers assuming a person with a psychological disability cannot manage/maintain employment and their finances, one can feel a lack of control over their own life.
People with chronic illness or acquired disability often struggle through the five stages of grief. Outlined by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, those stages include denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Though a person may reach acceptance of disability, they may often have “what if there is a cure” thoughts and a yearning to achieve the level of functioning they once experienced. Though one’s physical body may have acquired a disability, they have lived an able-bodied life up until the time of the accident or disease. Thus, those with acquired disabilities may successfully integrate disability into their sense of self while retaining an able-bodied perception of the world.
I validate the individual’s thoughts and feelings while challenging defeatist thoughts by examining where they stem from. I encourage self-reliance and provide positive reinforcement. I encourage and build their decision-making skills, affirming they have power over their decisions. Power over their lives.

Dr. GS: I’ve noticed that those without disabilities can behave in cruel ways toward people with disabilities, both intentionally and unintentionally. What would you like the able-bodied to understand? How can we be helpful when we see others behave with cruelty toward an individual, whether in person or online?

Dr. JG:  I believe that cruel behaviors are intentional acts. Unintentional behaviors that may insult and/or marginalize people with disabilities stem from ignorance of just not knowing. People with disabilities are experts at deciphering the difference.

If you are a witness to cruel behaviors towards someone with a disability, deal with the situation as you would with any bullying behavior. If you are physically present, state that the behavior is inappropriate. Ask the person being bullied if they would like your help. Always give the disabled person the power to choose your help. Online, do not encourage negative/bullying posts with “Likes.” You can message the individual with your thoughts about why you think a post is inappropriate.
People who are able-bodied can be allies to the disability community by providing inclusive environments. Examples are:

  •  Physical access to your home or public event (elevators, ramps, accessible bathrooms)
  •  PowerPoint presentations and workshop materials available in alternate formats (large print, braille, Instructional Universal Design)
  •  Use of person-first language. Language is powerful. Language shapes our perceptions.

The following communication strategies are recommended to promote inclusion:

  • Use person-first language. Example: “A man with quadriplegia” instead of “A disabled man” or “He’s a Quad.”
  • Speak directly to the person rather than through a companion or sign language interpreter.
  • Do not assume a person with a physical disability is either hard of hearing or has a cognitive disability. Speaking louder is not typically necessary or more helpful.
  • When meeting a person with a visual disability, always identify yourself and others who may be with you. When conversing in a group, remember to identify the person to whom you are speaking.
  •  Treat adults as adults. Address people who have disabilities by their first names only when extending the same familiarity to all others.
  •  Listen attentively when you are speaking with a person who has difficulty speaking. Be patient and wait for the person to finish, rather than correcting or speaking for the person. If necessary, ask short questions that require short answers, a nod or shake of the head. Never pretend to understand if you are having difficulty doing so. Instead, repeat what you have understood and allow the person to respond. Their response may clue you in and guide your understanding.

People without disabilities can serve as “Allies” to promote inclusion, and combat the marginalization. Ally examples include:

  • Do not encourage stereotypical jokes by laughing
  • Point out rude behaviors
  • Address accessibility and provide accommodations. If teaching a class or workshop, provide a written statement on syllabus or introduction of course.

Dr. GS: Many disabilities are not easily noticeable on the outside. Individuals might live with a mental illness, such as schizophrenia, or a brain trauma that isn’t noticeable at first. Deaf people can appear like the hearing. What are the unique concerns of those whose disabilities do not appear obvious?

Dr. JG: Individuals with hidden disabilities have an added burden of “Do I or Don’t I?” Do they disclose to others about their disability? Why bring it up and run the risk of being treated differently? In the workplace, why jeopardize not being hired due to long-standing societal attitudes/beliefs towards disability?

In some environments the individual may pass – presumed by others as a person without a disability. This may seem to be a good thing. Yet, for example – a person with Bi-polar Disorder may become overworked, triggering a manic episode and exhibiting behavior that is inappropriate in the workplace. Without their manager’s awareness of the disability, termination of employment may be immediate. However, if aware, the manager can provide accommodations to minimize triggers. AND, may be cognizant of behaviors that indicate a manic episode is starting to develop, discussing concerns and providing accommodations before adverse actions (suspension/termination) are necessary.

Dr. GS: What are the unique concerns of those with a visible disability, such as a double amputee?

Dr. JG: People with readily identifiable disabilities are continuously forced to deal with societal attitudes placed upon them. Stares, along with the overt and covert questioning of their intelligence often happen daily.

Dr. GS: That must feel so frustrating to be seen as less intelligent, simply because of some sort of limitation. You make some terrific points, Dr. Gibson. Thank you so much for this interview!

Readers, please like and subscribe to get Part III, the final piece of my interview with Dr. Gibson. Share this post with those you think might find it helpful, and please add your comments. We love to hear them!

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 by Josh Appel on Unsplash