Managing Anger When Living With Disability: Pt.III

Part III of my interview with Dr. Jennifer Gibson, clinical psychologist, and disability expert. Plus a bonus synopsis of her upcoming memoir: Finding Me.

Dr. Jennifer Gibson

by Gina Simmons, Ph.D.

I learned so much from Dr. Gibson about how to support and respect those with disabilities. In Part I of our interview she shared her groundbreaking model of disability development, and how it can help. In Part II we learned new and exciting ways to cope with anger and disability. In Part III she shares how the disabled can cope better with anger and loneliness. She also offers some sober advice to us able-bodied folks to keep us from feeling too cocky about our abilities.

Dr. GS:  Some workplaces, since the creation of the American’s with Disabilities Act, now embrace diversity and hire those with disabilities. What would you tell a prospective employer about the value of hiring individuals with disabilities?

Dr. JG:  Research shows that employees with disabilities take fewer sick days than their peers and are more likely to arrive at work on time. This suggests that they value their jobs more than most.

Dr. GS:  Many individuals with disabilities find themselves socially isolated and that can foster feelings of anger and loneliness. What helpful tips can you offer to those who might feel all alone with their disability?

Dr. JG:  Find ways to validate your sense of belonging. Put yourself in environments that increase the likelihood of being accepted and valued. Stay away from negative people and situations.

Find community activities that incorporate your hobbies and interests. Examples:

  • Go to the local restaurant that has your favorite sport’s team on the TV. Cheer with the crowd. Talk with others who share your love of the game.
  • Take a class on something you would like to learn. Say hello to other students.
  • Volunteer for a local political party/politician you like, or non-profit agency.
  • Attend weekly religious gatherings.

Dr. GS:  I’ve had the privilege of befriending and also working with many people with disabilities. I’ve learned so much about different ways of seeing the world. I think it’s helped me grow enormously as a person. Yet it always surprises me when I see others recoil from someone with a disability. Why do you think that happens? What do you think we can all gain from working with or befriending a person with a disability?

Dr. JG:  I think recoiling from the unfamiliar is often an unconscious reaction. It stems from fight or flight; an instinctual defense mechanism we have for survival. Inclusive environments provide experiential knowledge that promotes understanding. People then learn that we share many commonalities. Those who appear different from us are actually quite similar.

Individuals with disabilities may conjure up feelings of one’s own vulnerability. Unlike when interacting with folks who are different due to ethnicity, sexual orientation, or gender, images of people with disabilities may trigger fear of one’s own mortality. One might worry that the person sitting in a wheelchair or who appears to be struggling to walk/talk – could be (or become) “me.” People show similar reactions to the aging population.

I believe the most impactful shift in societal perspectives towards people with disabilities has stemmed from the implementation of Special Education in the public school system. The generation that attended grade school in the ‘’70s-’80s is the first to grow up knowing peers with disabilities. Since this time, more people with disabilities attend college, serve in the workplace and live full, productive lives. The Americans with Disabilities Act – giving civil rights to persons with disabilities – was signed into law in 1990. People with disabilities are now considered a part of society. Those with disabilities can no longer be legally shunned and hidden away in institutions, as was commonplace in our country through the 1970s.

Today, most people either know of a person living with or, they themselves have a disability. One in five people has a disability. Twenty percent of our population. Disability is a part of life. If one lives long enough and escapes injury and disease, more than likely… they will age into disability. I refer to people without disabilities as “TABs” – “Temporarily Able-Bodied.” This term can bring to consciousness the unconscious thoughts and feelings people have regarding disability.

Dr. GS: Wow, that’s a sobering idea. I think most of us never want to think about the potential of becoming disabled. Thank you for sharing the unique challenges of living with a disability. You also showed so beautifully how we all share a human vulnerability. Opening our homes and hearts to those with disabilities can enrich our lives immeasurably.

Below is the synopsis for Dr. Gibson’s memoir, “Finding Me” – a book in progress.

I am not what happened to me. I am what I choose to become.

-Carl Gustav Jung

“She’ll be a vegetable.” Not exactly what my seventeen-year-old mother expected to hear after seeing me off safely tucked in the attending nurse’s arms. The same nurse who minutes later snuck away from her post for an impromptu break – away for no more than five minutes, returning to find me blue after choking. Those few minutes without air caused permeant brain damage and led to my eventual diagnosis of Cerebral Palsy. Fast forward to a Ph.D. and one son later, my journey through life winds through unexpected places, defying even my own expectations as I discover my optimistic spirit and relentless strength. I am determined to challenge society’s view of my place in this world.

Finding Me takes me from a little girl living with a disability in a zip code one neighborhood removed from Compton, CA in the ‘60s and ‘70s as I sort through my family’s Appalachian breed of dysfunction. The context of institutionalization and education for individuals with disabilities sets my opportunities and hardships as I explore societal shifts in attitudes of marginalized groups from the ‘60s to the ‘90s – including women, people of color, and LGBTQIA.

Fighting for my first few breaths set the tone for my life-long struggle towards equality. While battling pre-determined views about who I am due to my disability and lower socio-economic roots, I grow into womanhood determined to break familial patterns of addiction, poverty, and domestic violence. Finding Me is a story of resilience in our evolving world.

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: