Young white woman with long red curly hair and black rimmed glasses is smiling.

Jennifer Pearlstein: Using Psychology to Help Improve the Lives of People with Disabilities

By Susan Chandler


Growing up in the western suburbs of St. Louis, Jennifer Pearlstein became interested in psychology at an early age. Members of her immediate family had experienced serious mental health challenges and by the time she was a teenager, “I had a deep desire to understand what led to these experiences and how we could provide support for them and improve their quality of life,” remembers Pearlstein, PhD, a post-doctoral fellow at the University of Washington (UW) in Seattle.

Pearlstein was preparing to apply to college when she ran into an unexpected obstacle. Her eyesight had become so poor she was unable to finish a standardized test in the allotted time. After seeing several doctors, Pearlstein was diagnosed with Stargardt disease, a rare early-onset form of macular degeneration. There is no cure and within a few years, she would be blind. “It was a bit of a surprise at 17,” she says. “I realized I was going to be forever interdependent in ways I hadn’t anticipated.”

As her vision deteriorated, Pearlstein learned to accommodate her changing needs at Truman State University in Missouri by magnifying print and digital materials. There were other challenges: She couldn’t drive or recognize the faces of her classmates, which made socializing awkward. “I realized I had to communicate and disclose my needs.”

Nonetheless, Pearlstein excelled academically and worked for the psychology department conducting research into social interactions and perception. She graduated as class valedictorian with a double major in psychology and cognitive science and a minor in statistical methods.

Knowing that her research experience at a small liberal arts college wasn’t enough to get her into a top graduate program in psychology, Pearlstein moved to the West Coast with her long-time boyfriend. She got a full-time job as a research coordinator in a psychology lab at Stanford University that was working with youth with bipolar disorder. One of her mentors ran a group using cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) to improve the coping skills of children and adolescents, and Pearlstein was able to sit in as an observer on almost 80 sessions. “It was cool that the skills and strategies they learned really helped them. Sharing their stories helped normalize their experience,” she says. “There could be a lot of judgment and bullying at school, and it was really powerful to see how the social support helped them deal with stigma.”

Pearlstein’s three years of experience helped her get into the clinical psychology doctoral program at the highly regarded University of California, Berkeley in 2015. She was thinking of a research career focused on understanding stress, emotions and mental health but her focus began to evolve. In the seventh year of her doctoral program, Pearlstein went to Seattle to complete her clinical internship at UW where she learned more about a specialty she hadn’t had much experience with: rehabilitation psychology. It resonated with her both because of her own disability and those of her family members. “A lot of people say, ‘research is me-search,’ and that is part of it. But the other thing I was struck by is how acquiring a disability has shaped my experience, what my stressors are, and what’s helpful,” says Pearlstein. “I was frustrated when I went to therapy and my therapist didn’t fully understand what I was dealing with. Not in a malicious way, she just didn’t have that lived experience and perspective. I saw a gap in clinical training and care that I wanted to address.”

After finishing her PhD, Pearlstein stayed on at UW for a post-doctoral fellowship with her mentor Dawn Ehde, PhD, who is currently directing a project funded through the Center for Rehabilitation Outcomes Research (CROR) at Shirley Ryan AbilityLab. Ehde and Pearlstein are looking into whether CBT can help people with chronic pain cope and feel better.

Pearlstein has also been developing her own program of research focused on the unique stressors faced by people with disabilities and how psychosocial factors like disability identity and social support can be sources of resilience. Pearlstein, who is now married to her long-time partner and expecting their first child, will be working on these projects until the fall but she has already accepted a clinical professor position in psychology at Washington University in St. Louis. Beginning in early 2024, she will be spending most of her days in a pain management clinic where many of the clients will be people with disabilities.

Moving back to St. Louis made sense for Pearlstein and her growing family, she says, because she and her spouse wanted to be closer to their families and friends. But because the area doesn’t have the same access to public transportation she was used to on the West Coast, she will more frequently require others to drive her around. “I will have to rely on others in additional ways,” she says. “But, for me, the tradeoff is worth it.”


More articles from the Fall 2023 Issue of CROR Outcomes