I have had cerebral palsy all my life and it affects my mobility and speech. Issues around mobility are generally not too difficult to solve with funding for social care and a good wheelchair. My speech impairment, however, has distanced and alienated me from others. I’ve now created a life where I only mix with people who are comfortable and relaxed around my speech impairment and asking me to repeat myself. But the past 30 years of having severe cerebral palsy have resulted in a lot of anger, sadness and grief. While I have never hated myself or the cerebral palsy, the isolation, especially in my teenage years, was a lot to deal with. In primary school I had lots of friends, but high school was harder, as everyone became self-conscious and nervous about interacting with me.
This made me feel angry and frustrated and I knew that I was taking this out on people I cared about. I did not enjoy feeling like this and wanted a professional to talk to. I was also scared of what my future might entail and my head became a bit of a mess. I couldn’t admit to anyone I wanted therapy, and there were no support groups or counselling services aimed at disabled teenagers.
At the time, I was also questioning my sexuality, so I contacted LGBT Youth Scotland in my hometown of Edinburgh, where I was offered very good emotional support by practitioners who aren’t therapists but are fantastic listeners and kind and empathetic. It was amazing to know that someone was listening and that I had a regular time where I could talk about everything that had gone wrong that week. So, when something at school felt horrible and painful, I knew it was only a few days until I could let it all out at LGBT Youth Scotland.
Since then I have also had counselling via Gay Men’s Health Edinburgh, and from university counselling services during my undergraduate and postgraduate studies in law. I have also had the odd stint of private therapy. The benefits of therapy for me continue to be enormous. On a very superficial level, I can save my anger for my appointment and make sure that it doesn’t overflow onto other people in my life, helping me maintain healthy relationships, both professionally and socially. Not many people who are studying for a PhD in law also require 24-hour assistance with all elements of personal life, or experience other people panicking whenever they try to communicate. This continues to throw new issues into my life every few months and it’s reassuring to know that my therapist will be there to listen within that seven-day time frame. I am lucky that my current therapist could make it safe for me to see her in person during lockdowns.
My speech impairment would make any type of remote therapy impossible. It has been very reassuring to have that support, especially in the final stages of lockdown.
But all of the therapy I have had has come about because I took the initiative to find it. My current therapist has never had a disabled client but she was not fazed by the idea of working with me. I knew there was no point in looking for a therapist who specialised in working with people with cerebral palsy, but I did look for a therapist who had accessible premises or was willing to adapt and come to my house. I think these concerns are much more important for therapists to consider, rather than reading up on disability.
When you’re disabled, you don’t need a clinical diagnosis of depression or anxiety to feel rubbish or angry at the world – the challenges of everyday life in a society designed for people who are not disabled are enough for many of us to feel sad and isolated. Validation and acknowledgment of these feelings can be very empowering. It can acknowledge the disabled person for everything they are, rather than as someone who needs a new wheelchair and a special toilet. Solving practical problems does not make psychological and emotional difficulties disappear.
The challenges I have faced in finding therapy inspired my mother to set up TalkTime Scotland, a charity that provides free therapy for disabled people aged 12 to 25 throughout Scotland. It’s also inspired me to consider training to become a counsellor myself, but two training institutions have rejected me outright because I have a speech impairment. I acknowledge that a distressed client might not feel held by a therapist who communicates differently, but I also believe that people with cerebral palsy deserve to have access to a therapist who understands their experience, and, at the moment, they don’t. If we don’t allow people like me to train and qualify as therapists, how can this situation ever change?