Dialogue Magazine Fall 2013
Blind Psychologist Helps Others See Solutions
By David Block, Ardmore, Pennsylvania
When a series of detached retinas left Andre Watson completely blind by age 11, his mother became overprotective. She rarely allowed him to go out and play with other children. He could no longer hang out at the mall or the movie theater with his friends. He was stuck at home, but there was one consolation–he was allowed to spend countless hours on the phone. This was his first step on the path to becoming a psychologist.
People felt comfortable opening up to him on the phone and in person, because they found his blindness disarming. Watson liked to listen to peoples’ problems and figure out what made them do certain things.
Children he knew–even the popular girls–confided in him. At times, this bothered him. Sometimes, those popular girls told him things in confidence about particular boys.
“They didn’t look at me as another guy, but as a harmless blind person,” said Watson. Moreover, many mothers who generally frowned on lengthy phone conversations with other boys gave Watson a free pass on the phone with their daughters. Understandably, he disliked that these mothers did not see him as an acceptable boyfriend prospect for their girls.
Following his graduation from the University of Pittsburgh in 1998 with a major in psychology, Watson approached his counselor about attending graduate school. She thought it was unrealistic. “I was livid,” said Watson. “I couldn’t believe that she was trying to discourage me. I thought that going to Pitt, having over a 3.0 grade point average–there was no question about whether I could do it or not. I thought that a counselor should have been encouraging, not discouraging.”
Watson set up a meeting with the counselor and her supervisor. As a result, they helped him get financial assistance to go to graduate school. He earned his doctorate in 2004 from Widener University in Chester, Pennsylvania, and secured his license to practice in 2007.
Because Watson had counseled patients both in his undergraduate and graduate days, seeing his first client as a licensed psychologist was almost an anticlimax. “The difference now was that I could charge a fee,” said the 37-year-old Watson.
How Dr. Watson Does His Job
During his sessions, Watson uses a notetaker with an earphone, so his clients do not hear the voice synthesizer. “I take notes when I’m getting to know them,” said Watson, who has a good memory for the details his patients offer. After knowing them better, he frequently finds it less necessary to take notes. Watson keeps track of time on his braille watch, believing that if he were to use a talking watch, his clients would feel that he was not paying close attention to them.
Watson thinks that his blindness rarely discourages people from coming to him for therapy. “One patient said to me, ‘I picked you because you’re blind. You wouldn’t be able to judge how I look. If you saw me in public, you wouldn’t be able to identify me.’ I felt validated,” Watson added. Experience has taught him that some people are ashamed of being in therapy. Not only do they not want their acquaintances, friends, and family to know it, they hate the idea of the therapist looking at them. Watson makes them feel safe.
Watson sees clients at the Philadelphia Consultation Center and at the Philadelphia School of Psychoanalysis. He never announces their names in the waiting room. “I’ll go to the waiting room and say, ‘Who’s here to see Dr. Watson?’ The person who has the next appointment would step forward and follow me into my office.”
Not all of Watson’s clients feel comfortable about having a blind therapist. He remembers his first and only session with one particular woman. “I directed her to my office. I started asking a series of questions; I asked what her reason was for coming in. Halfway through the session, she asked, ‘When will I be meeting with the actual doctor?’”
Watson was angry, but he maintained his composure. “I AM the doctor.”
“Yes, that’s correct. And I am the doctor.”
She did not ask him how he did his job. She finished the session, but never came back.
Besides counseling patients, Watson works as a psychologist advisor for Community Behavioral Health and teaches psychology classes for the University of Phoenix at their Philadelphia campus. His university classes are conducted in a traditional classroom, rather than the online setting for which the University of Phoenix has become famous.
Here’s Watson’s advice for blind and visually impaired people who want to become psychologists: “You need good social skills. You have to be comfortable in your own skin.” Even though he is blind, he still looks in the direction of his clients as if he were making eye contact. “If you rock (back and forth), have a tendency to look into space or look at the ground, you better break those habits. If you do things like that, clients won’t see you.”
Watson knows of only two other blind psychologists in the US, one in Pennsylvania and the other in California. “There could be more,” said Watson. He added that those two doctors lost their vision after they became psychologists. “I haven’t yet met anyone who became a psychologist who was blind beforehand, like me.”