“There’s not a lot of psychologists with disabilities,” says Dr. Craig Kramer. As a psychologist with a speech disability—he stutters—Dr. Kramer can see quite clearly how few others like him there are in his chosen field. And he also sees, in a way that people without disabilities often cannot, the way that this lack of diversity affects everything from the accessibility of professional conferences to the field’s treatment of disabled clients. And yet moves to address these problems have been slow and hard-won. “It’s interesting,” says Dr. Kramer, “because disability—we’re the largest minority group in the world. And yet we’re often the most forgotten about.”
Luckily, Dr. Kramer is more than just a critic. A 2016 graduate of the Doctoral Program in Clinical Psychology at Antioch University New England, he wrote his dissertation about the psychological effects of being a parent who stutters while raising children. And since then, Dr. Kramer has been working from within the field of psychology to help address these problems and shortcomings. Today he is a member of two key groups working to reform the field: he is a founding member of the Standing Committee for Disabilities within the National Council of Schools and Programs of Professional Psychology (NCSPP) and has just been appointed to a three-year term on the American Psychological Association’s Committee on Disability Issues in Psychology (CDIP).
By working so hard, Dr. Kramer and his peers are changing minds and practices around psychology. “Because we’re so targeted on disability and one thing, we can see change happening, we can see things getting better,” he explains. “I feel like our groups are making a difference, and it’s a wonderful experience. It brings a lot of joy and happiness to see that.”
An Early Passion for Psychology
At age fourteen, Dr. Kramer realized that he wanted to be a psychologist. It started as an intellectual passion, an outgrowth of his love for philosophy. He was fascinated by the existential philosophers, philosophers who questioned the deepest problems of existence: what does it mean that we’re alive, that we exist? How do we reconcile this existence with the inevitability of death? And how do we navigate the feelings of absurdity and dread that can arise from carefully examining the details of our lives?
These questions led directly into the field of psychology, which tries not just to understand the human mind but also to help people who may themselves be struggling with what life has thrown at them. Dr. Kramer particularly liked the way that psychology could help people, because, as a person who stutters, coming to better understand his own mind was a key to alleviating his suffering.
“I often felt marginalized and disempowered due to my early speech struggles,” he explains, “and this likely resulted in my strong interest in wanting to help others—in essence, giving them a voice that I struggled [to develop] and did not have for so long.”
So from age eighteen onward, Dr. Kramer made every decision in his life to become a psychologist. He studied psychology as an undergraduate and then pursued a Master’s in General Psychology from Adelphi University. While doing all of these, he also worked to build up his resume by volunteering at the NYU Child Study Center in Manhattan and the Creedmoor Psychiatric Center in Queens. This was all close to home, as Dr. Kramer had spent his whole life to that point living in New York City. But it also kept him busy, as he tried to ensure that he would be able to put together a competitive application to get into doctoral programs.
Studying an Overlooked Disabled Population
Eventually, Dr. Kramer’s quest ended in success: he enrolled in the Doctoral Program in Clinical Psychology at Antioch University New England. This five-year program would allow him to complete the degree he had always dreamed of holding—and would set him up to become a licensed psychologist.
Towards the end of the program, he had to choose a subject for his doctoral dissertation. He chose to work with a population that he knew quite well, because he was part of it: people who stutter. After reading the literature and calling up various speech-language pathologists working in adjacent spaces, he found that, to the best of his knowledge, nobody had ever studied the experience that people who stutter have when they become parents.
Dr. Kramer set up his research using a qualitative model, where instead of collecting numerical data he conducted interviews and looked for patterns of language and experience across them. He led semi-structured interviews with ten parents who identified as having a stuttering disorder, asking questions that aimed at understanding how stuttering affects parenting roles.
“I found out that being a parent who stutters really does impact the parenting role in some negative ways,” explains Dr. Kramer. They weren’t putting their kids in danger, but they were avoiding doing things that are specifically daunting for people who stutter. For example, some told him that they had avoided parent-teacher conferences. Others reported avoiding parenting roles that involved a specific amount of talking. These findings were noteworthy, as they put real narrative behind the difficulty faced by parents who stutter and the ways this can affect their children, too.
But Dr. Kramer also found some positive findings that suggest that this condition can also make parents more empathetic and aware of other people facing discrimination. Says Dr. Kramer, “One of the positive findings was they were able to teach their children how to better understand and empathize with people who are different, how to be more nurturing and caring to people who might not be the same as you.”
In 2016, Dr. Kramer published his dissertation as “Pebbles Under the Tongue: A Qualitative Investigation of Parents Who Stutter.” This research was a tangible contribution to increasing the visibility and understanding of people who stutter within psychology. And the experience inspired Dr. Kramer to continue looking closely at disability as he neared becoming a licensed psychologist.
Committees to Reform a Profession
But it turned out that this dissertation research would sooner, rather than later, result in a greater role in raising awareness around issues of disability within psychology. That’s because, as he was writing the dissertation, Dr. Kramer had reached out to Dr. Alette Coble-Temple, a professor of clinical psychology who is a prominent advocate for equal rights for individuals with disabilities. She herself lives with cerebral palsy, and so like Dr. Kramer she has a special view into the ways the world discriminates against the disabled.
While he was still a student, Dr. Kramer was invited by Dr. Coble-Temple to be one of seven psychologists on a new disability task force for the National Council of Schools and Programs of Professional Psychology (NCSPP). On this task force, which was soon given permanent status as a standing committee, Dr. Kramer and his colleagues worked to address a broad range of difficulties related to disability within the field of psychology and specifically in psychology education.
“We’ve addressed the lack of disability material in diversity classes and multicultural classes,” explains Dr. Kramer. “We’re trying to understand how programs and conferences can be more inclusive; how we could better implement universal design; how we can [help] students have better resources for accommodations if they have a disability.”
This work has been rewarding, and Dr. Kramer has been so outstanding at it that he’s recently been invited by the premier psychological organization in the U.S., the American Psychological Association or APA, to accept a three-year appointment to its Committee on Disability Issues in Psychology. With the APA, Dr. Kramer is currently working to create two webinars to give to other psychologists about the specific, psychosocial ways that COVID-19 is affecting people with disabilities and how disability can lead to lack of access to vaccines.
“We’re also trying to have APA take a more inclusive role of people with disabilities,” explains Dr. Kramer. “For some reason when people talk about diversity groups or minority groups, people with disabilities are often left out of the equation. And psychologists and psychology are often implicated in that, too.”
All of the work is trying to get people to see that disability is something real but also not something to be avoided or looked away from. Furthermore, just because someone is disabled doesn’t mean that they cannot thrive as a psychologist—although many structures within psychology make it harder for them to do so. This is why, as Dr. Kramer says, “In general, people with disabilities are under-represented throughout clinical psychology programs (students, professors, coursework).” And it’s exactly this reason why Dr. Kramer and his colleagues on these committees are working to change those structures.
The work itself is rewarding for Dr. Kramer. “It’s wonderful on a professional and personal level,” he explains. “On a professional level, I get to learn about all this stuff from psychologists who know a billion times more than me.” He’s 39 and was just licensed last October, so he has a long career ahead to use the knowledge he’s gaining from serving alongside more experienced psychologists.
“And then on a personal level,” he says, “it’s a wonderful experience to be able to give back in a way in which you could see change happen…of course there’s a source of great pleasure in being able to change the field that you’re a part of.”
Doing the Work, Even With the Fear of Death
Moving forward, Dr. Kramer is excited to be finally doing the job he has spent decades preparing for. He currently lives in Pembroke Pines with his long-term girlfriend, who is also a psychologist. He spends most of his days working at the Mental Health Center of Florida in Fort Lauderdale. He sees clients with a range of physical and mental disorders both through work in assisted living facilities and also in a private clinical setting. He also works with ChildNet and Florida’s Department of Children and Families. Here, he works with both adults and children to do evaluations for the courts, working with families where parents have had their children removed due to abuse and/or neglect.
All of this—the clinical work, the disability activism—gives him a strong platform from which to consider those questions that first entranced him as a fourteen-year-old. What does it mean to be alive? Why are we afraid of death?
Lately, Dr. Kramer has been thinking about one of his favorite quotes, from the cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker. Becker wrote: “Man is literally split in two: he has an awareness of his own splendid uniqueness in that he sticks out of nature with a towering majesty, and yet he goes back into the ground a few feet in order blindly and dumbly to rot and disappear forever.”
The experience of people with disabilities seems to offer a way of understanding this duality, this disconnect between the cosmic mystery of life and the dumb finality of death. Dr. Kramer has started trying to understand what he describes as “people’s affective responses to people with disabilities and the pathway through which this leads to avoidance of such an important topic—how we avoid talking about disabilities and the fragility and unknown of the body.”
What underpins our society’s attempts to hide disabled people in popular media and to ignore their needs in educational and professional settings? Explains Dr. Kramer, “I think that our kind of avoidance is around this affective or emotional experience of: when we see someone with a disability, we look because we are intrigued. It’s kind of like going to a wake or a funeral. You look at the dead body in the casket because you’re kind of intrigued. And then you get reminders about your own mortality or your own death.” But that interest doesn’t last, at least not in today’s society. “So then you might go home,” says Dr. Kramer, “and totally avoid the topic of death.”
“I guess what I’m saying is that disability arouses I think feelings of fragility,” he continues. “It arouses in us feelings of death, decay, dying. It reminds us about how vulnerable our bodies are.”
Dr. Kramer’s not totally sure how he will explore this insight professionally. It seems important that people with disabilities not be reduced to a symbol or a mental exercise. And in fact, much of the discrimination against people with disabilities can be traced back to just this sleight of hand that transforms a real, living disabled person into a reminder of the fragility of life.
“I think that psychologists need to reflect on [this],” says Dr. Kramer. “Why has this topic been avoided for so long in our field? There’s something that’s keeping psychology people in general away from talking about disabilities. I think it’s related to our own fear, again, of death, decay, mortality, and dying.”
He’s thinking of writing a paper about it, or giving a presentation at a conference, maybe a webinar. No matter what, it’s clear that Dr. Kramer is deeply engaged with his work, is exploring these ideas wherever they take him—and is doing everything in his power to make the world a more just place for those with disabilities.