On Being a Psychotherapist with Deaf Clients

by Allen E. Sussman and Barbara A. Brauer


Irene W. Leigh, Editor

As a result of the human potential movements of the 1960s and 1970s, society experienced a "Psychotherapy boom" and the burgeoning of consciousness-raising groups. The explosion and tremendous growth of counseling and psychotherapy, and the preeminence of therapists, became a social phenomenon. A compendium of psychotherapies from that time lists more than 250 "brand-name therapies," running the gamut from analytically oriented to insight-developing, cognitively oriented, behaviorally oriented, and eclectically oriented approaches that included various forms of couples, marital, family, sex, and group therapies (Herink, 1980). Psychotherapy was no longer limited to people who were "sick," maladjusted, neurotic, or mentally ill. A growing number of relatively well-adjusted individuals entered psychotherapy because they wanted to understand themselves better, function at the highest levels of their potential, improve their relationships with others, face the world more confidently, and live more satisfying, productive, self-actualizing, and meaningful lives (Wolberg, 1995).

This smorgasbord of psychotherapies was, however, not accessible to deaf individuals for a variety of reasons, including the relatively late entry of the behavioral sciences and mental health disciplines in the field of deafness and the acute shortage of qualified therapists. The slow progress in psychotherapy with deaf people was further exacerbated by negative attitudes of mental health professionals and avowed experts in deafness regarding the ability of deaf individuals to benefit from psychotherapy (Stewart, 1981; A. E. Sussman, 1988). The prevailing attitude at the time was that deaf people, due to their traditionally imputed deficiencies such as language difficulties, communication problems, lack of English skills, inability to reason on the abstract level, and personality issues, were not appropriate or feasible candidates for in-depth, insight-developing, effectively oriented, psychoanalytically oriented, and cognitively oriented psychotherapies. It was believed that only the highly educated, the highly verbal, postlingually deafened individuals could benefit from such forms of therapy.

Historically, professionals involved in the lives of deaf people were teachers, athletic coaches, members of the clergy, social workers, and in later years, vocational rehabilitation counselors (Vernon, 1971). For years these people filled the mental health void for deaf people, providing whatever assistance or words of wisdom they could. The type of assistance given to deaf individuals was usually straightforward: advice, directions, instructions, lectures, admonishments, and so on. Because of the limited perceptions regarding the capabilities of deaf individuals, psychotherapy for deaf people was pretty much mired in outdated and anachronistic directive approaches, the nature of which is antithesis to personal growth and independent functioning. This occurred while the field of psychotherapy was growing by leaps and bounds and gaining in scientific credibility. Next Page

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