Article Published: 6/29/2023
Ellie Potts, MS, NCC, CRC, is a rising third-year doctoral student at the University of Georgia and a 2023 NBCC Minority Fellowship Program Fellow. She has big plans for the profession, but her journey to this point wasn’t direct or easy.
Potts has cerebral palsy affecting all four major extremities—both arms and both legs—and so requires the use of a motorized wheelchair and assistance with physical tasks. As a counseling professional and with her personal experiences, Potts has developed a unique perspective on the accessibility of education and counseling. She has faced challenges in her career path, but these have also led her to where she is today.
“To say that has made this journey a little bit unique is an understatement,” says Potts. “Sometimes when you have a significant disability like I do, and a very visible one, you don’t always fit the typical profile of what a college student and especially a graduate student should look like. But hopefully I’m changing that narrative a little bit, at least in the counseling profession.”
Potts’s experiences give her unique insights into the state of the profession. This informs her aspirations for its future.
“Clinical rehab traditionally is the discipline that works with clients with disabilities. However, I think that’s changing, and I hope to be at the forefront of that because disability is real life. Disability is real-world stuff. And if we in the helping professions can’t figure out how to work with clients from all backgrounds in more effective ways, then we’re not serving them in the way that we need to.”
But Potts didn’t originally plan to be a counselor. She completed her bachelor’s degree in communications and graduated cum laude from Mercer University. After this, however, she encountered discrimination in her job search.
“I had a 12-year gap where I couldn’t find a job. Because when you have a pretty significant disability, some people, when you interview, have different reactions. It makes them very uncomfortable, and they don’t think you can do the job.”
Potts filled her time with volunteer work, including tutoring elementary school students. This led to her decision to continue her education.
“I realized as I was getting more and more into this that I needed to go back to school. I had to get a degree where I could do something with my mind and mitigate some of the barriers that my disability placed in front of me.”
Potts entered the school psychology program at Georgia State University. She thought this was what she wanted to do, but an unexpected development changed her plans.
“I was in that for a year and a half, was totally excelling in the program, loved it—all of that. Then, because of the strict standardization policies of assessment in school psych, it was determined that I couldn’t complete a practicum in that program because of my disability.”
This abrupt shift was a shock, but it led Potts to reevaluate her future and how best to apply her talents.
“I was in the room when they made that decision. It was pretty painful for all of us that day, because they knew me pretty well and they knew how instrumental I could be to that field if the barriers weren’t in my way. But I’m in such a better spot now. Even though it was painful at the time, now I can look back on it and be grateful for it. Because if they hadn’t said no, I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing right now. I still have professors within that department who are allies to me, who support me. They couldn’t figure out how I could do school psych, but as it turns out, I didn’t want to do that anyway.”
This could have been a crushing blow, but Potts took it as a challenge and rose to the occasion. “I knew for me I had to keep going. I’m kind of stubborn, I guess. When someone tells me no, I don’t really like it.”
She didn’t navigate this challenging time alone, however.
“I’ve had some really cool mentors along the way,” says Potts. “One of my mentors while I was at Georgia State, his name is Mark Crenshaw, was a professor in the Georgia LEND program, which stands for Leadership Education in Neurodevelopment and Other Related Disabilities. Mark was so instrumental to me because he helped me see the world beyond my disability and see what I could do and how I could use it to help others instead of it being a barrier or a bad thing. He helped me learn how to celebrate my disability. I wouldn’t have gotten to this point without that.”
One Georgia State University school psychology professor who has been a particularly strong ally is Andy Roach. He has continued to stay in touch with Potts through her academic journey and will even sit on her dissertation committee.
“He was instrumental in me getting into the LEND program. He knew that I needed to celebrate my disability and find a space to do that.”
Potts chose to make the change to a counseling program, inspired in part by her own experience seeking counseling during her undergraduate education.
“This person was talking to me about why I was there, and after listening to him I realized he was very concerned with learning about my disability and not with why I was there. He said to me at one point ‘wouldn’t it be easier if your disability were fixed?’ And I said, ‘I’m leaving and I’m not coming back.’ I didn’t go to counseling from that point on, and I started thinking there’s got to be something better out there for people who need counseling services. When I decided to switch to clinical rehab, I had that in the forefront of my mind. How can I make counseling more effective for individuals who are relatively unseen and not heard? How can I help them be seen and be heard?”
Potts enrolled in Georgia State University’s clinical rehabilitation counseling program. She enjoyed the program and again excelled. During Potts’s time in her master’s program, the COVID-19 pandemic arrived. This brought challenges for everyone, but it also brought unique obstacles for Potts.
“All our classes were on Zoom. What I like to say is everyone thinks Zoom is really accessible, and it is for the most part. But it’s also not as accessible as you’d think. For myself, I can’t mute or unmute myself easily. It takes a lot of hand control to do that. I can’t type in the chat. So the chat is something that frustrates me, but everyone uses the chat because it works for most people. For me it made learning not as accessible; I didn’t find as much joy in the process of learning.”
While completing her master’s degree, Potts applied for the counselor education and supervision doctoral program at the University of Georgia. She was accepted, but now encountered another challenge, one of timing. Her doctoral program would begin in the same summer that her master’s program ended. To be accepted into the doctoral program, she had to work with her masters program to reconfigure her schedule to align the timelines appropriately. Her revised program included intensive practical and clinical engagement, which she navigated successfully, helping her clients and learning a lot in the process. Potts explains, “Part of my internship was working for an IPSE (inclusive postsecondary education program) to assist students with intellectual and development disabilities who couldn’t matriculate through college in the traditional way.”
Potts completed her internship as planned and enrolled in the doctorate in counselor education and supervision program at the University of Georgia. This has been an inspiring and edifying experience not only for Potts, but for the faculty as well. Potts explains that the process of securing accommodations inspired her own research interests.
“They had never really worked with someone with a significant disability, but they were very open to it and willing to do it. We started working together to figure out what each piece of this would look like for me. We’re still in the middle of that, but through that process I really discovered what my dissertation topic would be. It’s called universal design for learning. That is taking the barriers from the classroom and applying the accommodations from the beginning instead of realizing there’s a need and then accommodating it. From a social justice perspective, it’s pretty cool, because it takes the responsibility off the student to ask for the support they need. The support is already integrated into the curriculum.”
Potts sees broader implications for her research throughout the counseling profession. Her unique experiences have shown her how education can be enhanced for all counselors-in-training.
“Part of the thing with universal design for learning is if we make the counseling curriculum more accessible and more engaging for students, then we can help them be engaged and learn more effectively. My theory is they will then be more prepared to work with diverse clients when they get out into the field. My overarching goal is to help change the way we educate counselors-in-training to give them more options and more autonomy over their learning and let them be more engaged in the process.”
These lessons apply to counseling practice as well, in Potts’s view. Her experiences have led her to believe that counseling can be made more accessible for all people, with and without disabilities. Each person is unique, says Potts, and counseling should recognize that.
“For me, accessibility doesn’t just mean physical accessibility. It means financial accessibility. It means location accessibility. It means modality accessibility. If someone needs a virtual appointment as opposed to an in-person session, that's OK. If someone needs a different way of working together, say if they need to be outside instead of inside in a traditional office. It's all about giving clients options and access to reach their full potential, whatever that looks like for them. I don’t want to be someone who determines that for them.”
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