April 10, 2006.
"The major disability I have is other people's attitudes toward me," says Cincinnati, Ohio, therapist Michael Lichstein, who's been blind since childhood. In fact, blind therapists like Lichstein and Kathie Schneider of Eau Claire, Wisconsin, don't consider their blindness a limitation, but rather a fact of their professional lives, with unique pluses. Sighted therapists rely heavily on visual cues, often looking carefully at faces, which sighted clients are adept at controlling. "The voice is much leakier," says Lichstein. Schneider adds, "People can slap a smile on their face, but they can't slap a smile into their voice."
What about other visual cues, like shifting eyes and body language? Blind therapists can tell when clients are looking out the window or at the floor by the direction of their voice, and they hear the slightest body movements. "My hearing isn't any sharper than sighted therapists' hearing," insists Lichstein. "I just pay closer attention." Sometimes, he adds, he feels shifts in energy.
Guide dogs, deeply attuned to everyone in the office and often described as the extra therapist in the room, add another advantage. "One of my couples started to argue," recalls Schneider, "and Carter, who's normally a gentle soul, started running around the office chasing his tail." When Schneider explained to her clients that Carter was just trying to manage the anxiety that had been evoked by their fighting, the couple immediately remarked that that was exactly how their 3-year-old was behaving at home. Suddenly they had a better understanding of the effects of their fighting and more motivation to work in therapy.
Occasionally, blind therapists are hampered by not seeing. After one new client had left her office, Schneider's secretary remarked what a short skirt she'd been wearing. "That would have been valuable information for me to know," said Schneider. But the lack of visual cues generally confers an advantage. Visual observations may sometimes seem so trivial to sighted therapists that they don't share them, making observation a one-way process. Because they have to check out their observations more frequently, blind therapists quickly heighten clients' awareness of their own processes and actions. "I'm hugging a pillow for security right now," one client told Lichstein.
Lichstein and Schneider long ago stopped telling clients on the phone that they were blind, because everyone still decided to come in. In brief therapy, say Lichstein and Schneider, their blindness seldom even comes up, and when it does, it's usually around a concrete issue like whether clients can send e-mails between sessions, or whether anyone else reads the therapists' notes. (They can "read" e-mails, and blind therapists' notes are as confidential as sighted therapists').
Rarely, some clients do decide after a few sessions that they're too uncomfortable with a blind therapist, but many clients are particularly intrigued and comforted by working with blind therapists. Sometimes, says Lichstein, clients attribute to him the kind of all-seeing wisdom unconsciously associated with blind prophets like Tiresias. Other clients, both attractive and unattractive, report they feel freed from the tyranny of being judged by their appearances. That's a reaction psychoanalysts who use a couch have experienced for years.
Clients not only receive their blind therapists' deep attention, but often, say Lichstein and Schneider, derive inspiration from them. "Sometimes they see me as this wounded healer," says Lichstein-a projection, since that's not how he sees himself-"and they'll figure, 'He's learned to pick his way through minefields, so I can, too.'"
Submitted by: Carmella Broome, Ed.S., LPC/I, LMFT/I Crossroads Counseling Center Lexington, SC www.solutionsforlife.org
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