Aspiring Mental Health Professionals Receive Active Training in Cultural Sensitivity

By Vanessa Sapien, Abilities Expo Ambassador

I was lucky enough to know at a very young age what I wanted to study when I went to college and what I wanted to do with my life in service of people living with disabilities. Many individuals living with special needs can relate to having to navigate the various professionals that come in and out of their lives, i.e., doctors, physical therapists, specialists, occupational therapists, etc., myself included. The unfortunate part about this reality is that all too often these well intentioned professionals are not equipped with the bedside manner or sensitivity needed to meet our unique needs and accompanying challenges. For this reason and many others, I have dedicated myself to becoming a Clinical Therapist.

Training in cultural sensitivity

One of my goals in life is to be a facilitator of change in the way we address the mental health needs of people living with disabilities. Currently I am a Masters student at Azusa Pacific University in the Graduate Psychology Department, pursuing my degree in Clinical Psychology with an emphasis in Marriage and Family Therapy. One of the things that excited me the most about this particular program and the University overall is their commitment to diversity. Which is why I was honored to help facilitate several disability awareness events through the Department of Graduate Psychology's Diversity Committee, of which I am also a member.     

The APU Diversity Committee is a student run committee, comprised of both Doctoral and Masters level psychology students who are dedicated to creating awareness amongst their cohorts about issues concerning diversity. Throughout the month of April several initiatives took place to ensure that the culture of People with Disabilities was taken seriously. First, I was invited by several of the Multicultural Psychology Professors within the department to guest lecture in their classes about how to counsel people with disabilities. Being able to share my story with others and provide resources, such as attending the Abilities Expo, proved to be an eye-opening experiences. For once the education of our culture became more than just a few pages at the end of a textbook. Creating an open and honest dialogue about what it really means to live with a disability helped to dispel some of the preconceived notions students have about the disability culture and revealed the ability and capability of its members.

We were also able to bring a diverse group of aspiring mental health professionals together for a special event led by Abilities Expo Exhibitor, singer, actress, advocate and facilitator of Ms. Wheelchair California Inc., Jennifer Kumiyama. As a guest speaker, Jennifer shared her inspiring journey of triumph and success as a woman born with Arthrogryposis. As a wheelchair user, Jennifer has defied the odds and continues to inspire others to do the same. "To make a difference, you must realize the difference," said Jennifer.

Training in cultural sensitivity

Her story resonated with many participants at the event, "Jennifer is an excellent example of how a life with limits does not mean that you have to live a life with limitations," said fellow attendee Mariela Duran. "I am grateful for the opportunity to know Jennifer's story, learn about the history of advocacy and hear her hopes for change in the future. It's clear our society has come a long way, but there is still much progress to be made. As a result, I am encouraged to confront our culture's approach to disability and engage in meaningful, transformative conversation," shared MFT student Kat Smith. Jennifer's message of treating others as you would want to be treated or treat your children is one that resonated with all were present.

Events like these bring great hope for the future. Exposure is the only way to bring about cultural competency in individuals and professionals alike. Professionals of all types need to be actively trained in cultural sensitivity, rather than passively exposed to people of all abilities through required reading. Cultural competency should not only be learned through experience, but should be imbedded in programs prior to entering the workforce. Through collegial commitments such as these, mental health services will become more accessible to our community, because we will become more confident that we are understood and heard. The need for support of all kinds is vital, and mental health is on its way to meeting and understanding our needs. There are many people who care and want to help, they just don't know how. Now thanks to a collective effort, some do. 

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