The Student’s Experience
In 2002 I met Linda Martin, a tutor for the diploma counselling course at West Kent College. When preparing for the interview for the course I was very nervous, as a blind person I frequently find that I have to prove a little more than the average applicant.
I entered the interview room ready to fight my corner, sure that I would have to convince Linda that although blind, I would be as determined and willing as any other qualified person to work hard and complete the course; I was, however pleasantly surprised by Linda. She interviewed me as she would have any other applicant, and whilst we discussed my disability, and how I would cope with certain aspects of the course, such as handouts and assignments, at no time was my ability to become a counsellor questioned.
I was concerned that the tutors would adapt their timetables or methods in orderto accommodate having a blind person in the group. It would have been so unfortunate if I and the others missed out on wonderful experiences, such as the art exercises, and if for safety reasons it was decided to alter the layout of the room, disturbing the ambience, this for me would have conjured one of the worst feelings as a disabled person… “I would become a burden!” I didn’t want to be responsible for creating extra work for the tutors and didn’t want to fuel resentment with other members of the group for the loss of certain exercises.
Needless to say, I needn’t have worried. I and the whole group still went through the same feelings of horror when we entered the room to find the dreaded drawing materials and we all still enjoyed the beautiful centre pieces set in the middle of our circle, such as candles and flowers. I actually found that I got a lot from the creative exercises, and feel confident enough to use it with my prospective clients. Others learned how to work with me using other senses and not just the visual content. It would be nice to feel that my disability may have, in fact, contributed to other group members experiences during the course.
The tutors made the effort to give me my handouts in advance so that I could transcribe them into Braille, and they always asked me if there was another way that I would like to take part in the exercises. I was so relieved that my tutors understood that I wanted to experience the same things as the rest of my group, with the least amount of adaptation. They knew that if I found something difficult to do or take part in, I would let them know and between us we could find an alternative solution.
I found many of the required books on tape from various places, including having them shipped from the U.S. I typed my assignments on the computer using speech synthesised software called Jaws, it reads the contents of the screen but the robotic tones can prove tiresome! Initially the use of tapes rather than books is a slightly slower method, there is no way of being able to quickly scan a page for example, and the frustration manifests itself when wasting time looking back through dozens of tapes to find a quote. I soon however found ways to turn using tapes to my advantage, soon all my domestic chores were made yet more productive by the accompaniment of my trusty tape player!
When giving presentations to the group I used something called a Braille Lite. This is a small piece of equipment that has a Braille display, the 6 pins for each cell pop up and down in procession throughout the prepared document, it also has synthesised speech. I was able to speak to the group with an ear phone in one ear and whilst reading the display. It meant a lot of multi-tasking, but again the technology gives me a level playing field, whilst others can use their paper based notes this allows me to use my notes too. It also however, appeared to steal my limelight, as by the end of my talk there were more questions about the Braille Lite than my presentation!!! The group asking me questions relating to my visual impairment was something that grew as the course went on, and was something that I feel we all benefited from. They were able to talk to me about my disability, as well as learn other things such as how to guide me through doors or up and down stairs, (with no permanent injuries!) and I learned to speak more openly about my blindness.
As a blind counsellor some may think that I would be unable to pick up on certain clues given by the client, but since losing my eye-sight my other senses have sharpened considerably and in some ways I feel I am at an advantage by not being able to see my client. I’m able to pick up on every intonation of their voice, hear each movement they make and appreciate the sound of their tears as well as their laughter.
As I am writing this and remembering my feelings of panic and worry that I experienced at the beginning of the course, I now feel a little foolish that I lost so many nights sleep, worrying about how we would all cope. I really couldn’t have wished for more understanding, helpful and accommodating tutors, between us all we made it work, and I now see that period of my life as being one of the most valuable and meaningful.
Vicki Norris Vicki has now finished attending the course and has two placements at organisations for the blind. Once she has completed the required hours she hopes to work more with others who have lost their sight, offering support and hope to them and their families as well as counselling.
The Course Leader’s Experience
In November 1997, Counselling (the previous incarnation of CPJ) published an article entitled A Deaf Trainee – Can It Work? This article was written by Pauline Monks (now Pauline Alexander) and myself and was about her training as a counsellor at West Kent College where I was and am the Course Leader. It centred on the difficulties and benefits of having a disabled member of the counselling group and the practical and psychological effects of this experience on all concerned.
The training with Pauline, and the reflection I did on this afterwards, changed me as a trainer and as a person. I find myself committed to the principle of equal opportunities in a heart-felt, even passionate way, and will always make it possible for a suitably qualified student who is disabled to attend the course. For me this is not negotiable; my feelings and opinions have solidified into a kind of certainty. I think the certainty comes from a thought I had when Pauline attended her interview: I thought ‘She didn’t tick a box and decide she wanted this disability. This happened to her against her wishes and it could happen to me, or someone I love. How would I feel if I wanted to do this course or if one of my children did and they couldn’t because some tutor was not willing to make the effort?’ Writing this down I see it is a very simple, perhaps banal thought, a version of the Golden Rule. But it meant something important to me and continues to reverberate in my relationships with others.
Thus, when in 2002 I met Vicki Norris, who is blind and wanted to join the course, I had, so to speak, already made up my mind that she would join provided she was a suitable candidate. This decision and my commitment did not prevent me also having some of the same thoughts that I had had when meeting Pauline: this will be a lot more work for me – I was not quite sure how but I was sure it would mean this; some important parts of the course will be lost because Vicki won’t be able to do them – in particular, I was certain that art exercises, which we use a lot, would be impossible. Even very minor things, like our habit of putting a candle in the middle of the room, would, I thought, be lost for safety reasons, and I was petty in this, resenting the idea of the change being forced upon me. My colleagues and I talked over these concerns and we all knew it was manageable but I felt dispirited by the necessary compromises.
I was, however, entirely wrong in my expectations. Vicki was able to do almost every exercise we suggested, including many creative ones. She would choose colours of paper, colours and type of drawing materials and draw without seeing. Sometimes she made tissue paper flowers and it was important to her that the colours were exactly right. She let us know the best way to help her get around, which was by the person nearest to her allowing her to hold her elbow whilst she guided her. Soon, she had learned her way around the building, which helped when I confidently told her there were ten steps down the stairs when there were eleven. She told me that this kind of mistake is not uncommon. Vicki was even untroubled by the candles, which we lit most weeks. She joined in with everything we did, with grace, enthusiasm and humour. Sometimes we forgot she could not see and would, for instance, refer to writing on a whiteboard, and she was tolerant of our forgetting.
Of course, being unable to see has some disadvantages for a counsellor, the most obvious being that she cannot pick up on gesture, body language and other visual clues as to what is going on for the client. Vicki was able, however, to be as empathic as any other sighted student, perhaps being blind she has anyway sharpened her perception through her other senses.
All the students in the group were supportive, and helped Vicki when it was necessary, without being suffocating and patronising. The College helped financially, and with no haggling. Most of all, Vicki helped herself, finding ways of getting tapes of course books, ways to get to College, ways to write essays; I can only imagine that what is a simple task for a non disabled person can sometimes become a major logistical conundrum for a disabled one.
She was always appreciative of the support we gave her, which touched me a lot, partly because it seemed to me that in the event we had to do so very little. She wrote me a note when we had our final session that I have kept:
I would like to thank you for all the support that you and the other tutors have given me throughout the course. At no point during the two years have I ever felt unable to take part in any of the exercises that we have been invited to do, and this is because of your willingness to work with me, and your patience to listen to my needs. You have helped to make my time on the course enjoyable as well as meaningful, and it is a period of my life which I will cherish. Thank you.
This touches me and I feel ashamed at my small anxieties when I knew she was going to join us. It worked so well.
Linda Martin Linda is a BACP Accredited Counsellor and Counselling Trainer and a UKCP Registered Gestalt Psychotherapist. She has worked as a tutor on the Advanced Diploma in Humanistic Counselling at West Kent College, a BACP Accredited Course, since 1992 and as Course Leader since 1993.