Therapist Richard Chapman feels blessed for his disability

Richard Chapman, 27, of Tampa is pictured at the Tampa Underground church network in Ybor City, one of the venues where he provides counseling.
Richard Chapman, 27, of Tampa is pictured at the Tampa Underground church network in Ybor City, one of the venues where he provides counseling.
Published July 26, 2013

Richard Chapman grew up refusing to let his disability define him. He credits his parents for that. They told him he could do anything he put his mind to and he has. Chapman, 27, of Seminole Heights has cerebral palsy and last year graduated with a master's degree in rehabilitation and mental health counseling from the University of South Florida. He is now working to get his license and planning to get into a doctorate program. With that, he says, he'll be in a position to influence other people and to change the world.

Recently, Tampa Bay Times staff writer Elisabeth Parker caught up with Chapman to hear his thoughts on practicing and living with a disability.

How many clients do you see in a week?

Ten to 12. That includes evaluation and psychotherapy and consulting. All my clinical activities are under the supervision of John Mayo (director of Success 4 Kids & Families). I am looking for more contract work, paying clients.

Do you tell them about your disability?

A theory behind disclosure is that I could make the choice to not disclose a thing about my disability. I could say: "Hi, Mary Sue, I'm so glad you are here. How can I help you today?"

But some people might get a little bit uncomfortable. So I tell clients I have a condition called cerebral palsy. It affects my speech. If you can't understand me, it's okay to ask me to repeat. I feel that it makes the client more comfortable.

Why is that important?

I believe the therapy relationship is the primary vehicle to change. That's what the research tells us. And so I want to form that deep relationship with people. So I need to disclose. The whole thinking behind disclosure is to benefit the client, not me. So for example, I wouldn't disclose what is going on in my own personal life. But obviously, I have a visible disability. The first question a client would have is what kind of disability does this guy have. Disability is a natural part of the human experience.

Other therapists might have another opinion. I'm not speaking for the entire profession. I find it makes clients feel more comfortable.

Have you ever had a client react negatively?

Yes. That's just something I have to deal with from time to time. I have learned over the years to brush it off.

My policy is I don't give up on clients. John has constantly taught us not to give up on people. I take clients who are challenging because I think that's the best way to learn.

There's this whole theory of Maslow's hierarchy of needs. Some people believe that when people are actively psychotic, they're on the streets, you cant do any real psychotherapy with them. I don't believe that. I think the fact that we are just listening to people, listening to them talk about their day, that is a transformation experience. That is a therapeutic experience. I listen and do not judge.

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Sounds Jesus-like.

Yes, yes. But it's also very Rogerian. Carl Rogers, founder of the client-centered counseling movement.

What's your philosophy on disability?

I truly believe having a disability is a profound gift. I would not change this fact. It is truly an ingenious way of living. It requires you to think creatively to get stuff done in life.

So you feel like you've been blessed with this?

It's a gift. Some people believe "Pity me for having a disease." I say, "I am blessed."

Do you think that is because you don't know life without it?

Yes, yes.

Who are your role models?

I look up to John Mayo. He's my professional role model. I've had teachers and mentors in the disability community that have taught me what I believe about disability: That we can live in the community. We can be employed in the community. And we can be educated in the community if we are provided the proper support.

Where are you going from here?

I'm considering a couple programs to pursue a doctorate in counseling education and ultimately teach at the university level.

Sunday Conversation is edited for brevity and clarity. Richard Chapman can be reached at