I read Maggie Fisher’s article ‘Working with disability’ in the April issue of Therapy Today, and as I am also a therapist with a disability, felt that I would like to share my experiences. I contracted polio at the age of three months. Both my arms are paralysed, though I have some residual movement in the fingers of my right hand, and I use a powered wheelchair as I have little strength in my legs. I volunteer at a local counselling agency twice weekly and also see clients in my private practice.

Over many years I have learned to live a full and rewarding life despite my disability. During my years of training to be a counsellor, it became very clear to me that I need to be at peace with my difference before I can ask anyone else to be. I am now in that ‘place’ and feel that I reflect this in my work with clients and in my everyday life. Prior to meeting my clients, I don’t forewarn them that I have a disability as I feel that my role in working with them has nothing to do with the functioning (or non functioning) of my arms and legs. What they require from me goes much deeper than that, it’s to do with my mind, with ‘me’ and who I am, and of course, who they are. There are the slightly awkward few moments of our first meeting when I go into the waiting room in my wheelchair to welcome my clients, and bring them into my room – awkward for them I might add, not for me. I anticipate the surprise on their face as they realise that the assumption they had made (for that’s all it was) that their counsellor would be able bodied, was wrong. As I greet them and engage with them using good eye contact, warmth and empathy in my voice, I can soon feel the ‘awkwardness’ ebb away as our focus moves to them, and those issues which brought them to me as we begin our work.

What is helpful to me is that they’ve come into my space, and my confidence, in turn, helps theirs. I would only disclose to clients if they also have a disability, in which case it can be a useful process – though not in every case – but other than that I feel it has no bearing on what I’m doing. I have only been asked once by a client why I use a wheelchair. This was at the end of a first session and the questioner was someone who had just told me that she volunteered with disabled children. I wondered if she felt that this gave her the right to ask. I answered her question by saying I was interested as to why she felt she needed to know, and after a pause, she said that she didn’t know why. I told her that I’d had polio, but felt we were both aware that the exchange didn’t feel comfortable.

Thinking about this later, it became very clear to me that it was about personal boundaries; information about me is not something I need to give, it’s not part of my job. However, the client apologised, saying she didn’t know why she’d verbalised her thoughts then, but that it was something she often did that subsequently felt inappropriate and which she frequently regretted. My client was very short, which was something about herself that she didn’t like and interestingly, the matter of personal boundaries arose again much later in our work when she was talking about how people often mention her height, which she felt had nothing to do with her as a person and caused her to feel uncomfortable. She felt these comments from others were unnecessary and not pertinent to her as a person and just after speaking about it she paused and smiled at me, noting that it was exactly what she had done at our first session. This led to us exploring and validating her own feelings when it happens to her and this I felt, would help her in future to change her behaviour patterns, assisting her to hold onto those thoughts and consider how they might affect the recipient. Another client who had come to me with many health issues, burst into tears when she saw that I was disabled, saying she felt guilty. We explored this and I explained to her that from my perspective, there are many things in life worse than using a wheelchair; for me it’s just a tool to get me about. Having said this to her, I felt it was very important in our work to validate her views and feelings around this. We have now worked together for many weeks and she’s able to embrace the fact that her life might be a little easier by using a wheelchair, as and when she needs to, without feeling that she needs permission from society.

I have also found clients to be very thoughtful towards me in ways I didn’t expect. There was the man who came to me with many issues of rejection and drug abuse. Having been referred by his doctor, in our first few sessions he made it very clear that he found the whole idea of therapy and talking about himself to be a waste of time. We had been working together for several weeks and making some progress, when he came to his session holding a large book. As he sat down I was wondering how I was going to deal with this, if he passed me the book, did he realise, that I couldn’t actually hold it. He explained that the book was a photo album of family members he had been telling me about in our work, and asked whether I’d mind looking at the photographs. I said that of course I was happy to look, whereupon he opened the book, turned it round so that I could see it and held it up to me, turning the pages as required. As he spoke about his family I realised that we had reached a relational depth here; my client understood and accepted that I couldn’t hold the book and it made absolutely no difference to him, because what he needed from me as his counsellor, I could give him and my disability wasn’t in the room with us. This incident warmed my heart and clarified my belief that often, the more you make of something, the bigger it becomes.

Mary O’Sullivan is a Registered Member MBACP. Details have been changed to protect identities.