Karen Barrett
Associate Professor of Rehabilitation

Ph.D., Southern Illinois University at Carbondale
M.A., Southern Illinois University at Carbondale
B.S., University of Maine at Farmington


“UMF is the school for you if you’re willing to make use of all it offers,” said UMF Associate Professor of Rehabilitation Karen Barrett. And she would know — having graduated from UMF, herself.

“UMF offers a lot. Ninety-nine percent of success is showing up, so be the student asking questions, be the student in the professor’s office asking about your options. Be present and be curious. Be engaged,” Barrett said.

Deep Maine Roots

Barrett is proud of her Maine heritage. She grew up in Leeds and now lives in nearby New Vineyard where she splits her own wood for her stove. Barrett graduated from the UMF Rehabilitation Services program in 1991 and went on to earn her doctorate at Southern Illinois University. She was working there when she saw a teaching position open at UMF.

“I was very happy working at Southern Illinois University, but I thought UMF would be a good fit. My family’s from Maine, and I’m a Mainer through and through. I love being other places in the world but Maine is home,” Barrett noted.

Barrett said she feels a special connection with UMF students, the majority of whom come from Maine.

“One of my joys as an educator is to help my students understand that they are smart and just as good as anyone else. I connect strongly with that because I was told I wasn’t smart enough or not good enough, ” Barrett remarked. “I was told in high school that I wasn’t college material, so I didn’t go to college. I got married and got a job, but I just wasn’t happy in my job. Then I came up to UMF to take a course and found out that I could earn a degree.”

Barrett said she wouldn’t be the teacher she is today without that experience, which better helps her mentor her students. “It is quite an experience to see them go from an 18-year-olds unsure of what they want to do to young adults who have found their niche and are doing something meaningful,” she said.

Finding Diamonds

“That’s what keeps me in this profession. There are a lot of diamonds in the rough out there. I have these students who came in rough around the edges who have to learn some new habits. Then, in just four years, they graduate and go out into the world as young professionals working with people in crisis and really making a difference,” Barrett said.

Barrett explained that she owes her own transformation into a rehabilitation professional to UMF Professor Emeritus Robert Pullo’s Handicapping Conditions course. Pullo showed her the fundamental truth of rehabilitation philosophy — that people are not defined by their disabilities.

“That class changed the way I thought about people with disabilities. It changed my world view. It’s interesting that one class can do that. It was a whole new way of thinking, ” Barrett said. “We don’t see people as problems or deficits to be fixed. We see their strengths. Then we see what is going on in the environment and then adapt the environment, so that they can shine. That course changed me, and to a great degree, I owe my success to Bob Pullo,” Barrett said.

Pullo inspired Barrett to become a professor, and one of the benefits of working in higher education is that she also gets to see the effect she has on her students. “Sometimes I don’t know what kind of influence I’ve had on my students until I get an email five or six years after they graduate, telling how they are using something they learned in class. That’s what so cool about this job, that you can have that kind of impact. It’s very satisfying to have that kind of feedback,” Barrett said.

The UMF Difference

UMF’s small, close-knit community helps foster enduring student-teacher relationships and faculty collaboration that can help guide students toward their goals. Barrett has conversations with professors across disciplines to help students fulfill their potential.

“There are a good many of us faculty who help students find their vocation, even if it’s not rehab. We want to know what sets you on fire, and how can we support you in your interests, ” Barrett said. “As I look back to other universities I’ve worked at, that’s where UMF is different. The coursework is there, but you don’t get the personal relationships. I know what my students’ individual interests and career goals. I can advise and help my students develop those interests.”

Living in a Wheelchair

To challenge her students, Barrett is not above breaking social convention. One time she entered a classroom crawling on all fours to demonstrate how ingrained social behavior that demands that people walk upright rather than use crutches or a wheelchair. Barrett also wants her students to learn firsthand how difficult it can be for someone with a disability to navigate through day-to-day life.

“We have our rehab students use a wheelchair for three days. They have to do all their activities — go to school, to work — everything in the wheelchair. When we first assign it students usually tell me they can’t go to work with a wheelchair because there are stairs, and I ask them if they had to use a wheelchair where would they work? ” Barrett said.

“We can tell students about the obstacles — like cracks in the sidewalk, snow and stairs — but until they are in the chair trying to negotiate those obstacles they really don’t know what it’s like. It changes the way they see the world. Suddenly, students see it’s the environment that’s disabling, not the condition. Then they start questioning whether the world has to be designed that way,” Barrett said.

Opening the Box

“We also do another exercise using fine finger dexterity. I have a whole box of objects — button shirts, nail clippers, cereal boxes, scissors and combs — all everyday items used in daily activities that require fine finger dexterity. I ask my students to use them without using their fingers,” Barrett said.

“One of the hardest things in the world is opening the liner of a cereal box, even when you have fine finger dexterity. When I have my students try to open the cereal box without using their fingers, it usually ends with cereal all over everywhere,” she explained.

“But is it your deficit if you can’t open the cereal box, or is it a poor design? Why aren’t we questioning why there isn’t an easier way to store cereal that’s easier for everyone to open?” Barrett asked.

Focused on Real Challenges

These experiential exercises make students question their environments and lead them to consider environmental designs that all people can use, Barrett said. Then students focus on the concept of universal design &what is the environment that enables the most number of people, no matter how they move through the world.

“For instance, what are your choices for visiting others if you use a wheelchair? How many homes are wheelchair accessible? Do we assume that people in wheelchairs don’t want to go out? The reality is that it is pretty embarrassing to have someone lug you into their house and then lug your wheelchair into their house,” Barrett explained.

“I just want people to understand that environments affect how individuals behave and how well they do. Having my students spend three days in a chair really makes them question those environments, ” Barrett said. Barrett observed that the majority of UMF Rehabilitation Services courses are grounded in the latest theory, but are also very pragmatic, focused on real problems and challenges.

Graduate School Competitive

Barrett and her fellow faculty members work to make sure that their students get the opportunity attend national professional conferences. On a recent trip to Washington, D.C., she also helped her students schedule interviews with graduate school program directors.

“Most of the graduate programs in rehab send representatives to the conference, so we identify which programs our students are interested in and set up times for our students to meet with 5 to 6 graduate program representatives. That’s the most cost-effective way for many of our students to interview with them. And often times, our undergraduates get to talk to graduate students in the programs as well,” Barrett said.

“Our students have had strong course content, and they are very competitive in graduate school and do very well in graduate programs. It’s funny to see the banter as some of these representatives vie for our students,” Barrett said.

UMF Rehabilitation Services majors have gone on to graduate programs, some with full scholarships, at Southern University, Penn State, University of Arizona, University of Northern Colorado, and Assumption College.

Whether they are considering graduate school or not, UMF students are among the handful of undergraduates students who have the opportunity to attend these conferences where they can make professional contacts with leaders in the rehabilitation field.

Myth, Madness and Mental Health

“One of the more radical classes I teach is Myth, Madness and Mental Illness. I don’t believe that disability status is a truth — it is a concept. I also think that, to a great degree, much of what we define as mental illness in America is socially constructed. For instance, why is it, when we are unhappy, which is a natural and normal state of being, we must take a pill and make it go away? So in that class, we challenge the societal notions that stigmatize, that drive us to take medication,” Barrett explained.

“I want people to question the status quo and the psychiatric establishment. Why not allow people to experience the whole breadth of human emotion instead of this narrow range of socially acceptable behavior?” asked Barrett. She questions the value of declaring anything outside that limit to be pathology that must be medicated away. “How does limiting the scope of acceptable behavior affect the way in which we treat people?”

Transorbital lobotomies are a good example of the need to question psychiatric standards, Barrett explained. Lobotomies were supposed to be curative experiences. Psychiatrists, then, were sure lobotomies were therapeutically beneficial, and they were wrong. “How do we examine what we do today in treatment and how will it be viewed 100 years from now? We have to question everything. Especially when we are talking about peoples lives,” Barrett said.

“For me that’s the most important part of an education — to teach people that there are very few hard and fast answers. And that uncertainty is uncomfortable for many people,” she added.

“One of my biggest challenges is to teach students to work within the mental health system as it is, but at the same time to keep in mind what could be and to keep questioning. The best education doesn’t just prepare students for what is, but helps student become the leaders that move the field forward,” Barrett said.