NewsMay 13, 2019

PhD graduate throws off disability stigmas: ‘I’m not less than’

Dee Genetti refused to let a traumatic brain injury end her career

Dee Genetti and her service black lab service dog
Dee Genetti PhD ’19 and her service dog Marquis.

Dee Genetti would be forgiven for giving up on her PhD after two traumatic, life-shattering accidents.

Yet, the soon-to-be three-time Lesley graduate has not let any setbacks stop her from a single-minded determination to complete her doctoral degree. And at Commencement on May 18, she will have a piece of paper to prove she’s done just that.

Genetti’s first car accident in 1983 left her permanently wheelchair bound. Suddenly, the young mother of two and businesswoman couldn’t even get in and out of her house without help.

“All of a sudden I was nobody,” recalls Genetti, a licensed mental health counselor.

When she met disability advocates canvassing her neighborhood, everything changed, and she began to see her own potential as a champion for people with disabilities. In addition to joining local disability councils, she and a friend would do everyday activities such as hang out at the local mall to help acclimate people to being around the disabled. It wasn’t easy.

“People would be walking, and they would quickly turn to the other side of the mall rather than walk past us,” she remembers.

It was Genetti’s work with newly disabled people that lead her to Lesley. As she helped them navigate their conditions, she often ended up as a de facto counselor, just without the credentials.

Dee Genetti at PhD hooding ceremony, receiving her hood.
Dee Genetti receives her PhD hood at a ceremony on Brattle Campus.

At Lesley, Genetti earned a dual degree in 2003 with a bachelor’s in human services and a master’s in clinical mental health counseling with an advanced graduate certificate in trauma studies. Then she began her doctorate in educational studies, and four years later was ready to start her dissertation when a truck crashed into her car at 65 miles-per-hour. Genetti’s head ricocheted between the dashboard and headrest, leaving her with a traumatic brain injury (TBI).

“The velocity of my brain going forward and back like that, it shears everything in your brain,” she says. Genetti was left with a speech impediment and unable to read or write, but “my goal from day one was to get back to my dissertation. People thought I was crazy.”

Even as she learned to speak again, it was in a slow monotone with half-formed thoughts, so when her first speech therapist released her, Genetti was both disheartened and determined to keep going. She was referred to speech language pathologist Rick Sanders at the Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital, who had experience working with higher functioning TBI survivors. She brought her extensive resume, academic references and 30-page research paper on the biological basis of behavior of PTSD and major depressive disorder to their initial appointment.

(Her) singular will and determination have driven her recovery and reset our equations for what is possible after traumatic brain injury.
Rick Sanders, Speech Language Pathology Advanced Clinical Specialist

“I spoke so slowly and with my speech impediment that I had to show them on paper I was intelligent,” she says.

Initially, Sanders wasn’t sure if Genetti would be able to recover enough to achieve the ability to write at a dissertation level, but he didn’t rule it out either.

“The most striking aspect of Dee’s recovery has been how far she has come from the days when she struggled to hold a two-minute NPR news clip in her memory to now completing her doctoral degree,” said Sanders. “(Her) singular will and determination have driven her recovery and reset our equations for what is possible after traumatic brain injury.”

 “Where else can this happen but Lesley?”

Genetti’s recovery was marked by periods of depression and PTSD, but also progress. During her five-year leave of absence, she kept in touch with her doctoral committee — professors Julia Byers, Susan Gere and Caroline Heller, and later Dan Newman — who gave her assignments.

“Each assignment we gave her we thought would be a next step,” says Gere, who began working with Genetti in her master’s program. “You never know how far a person can go.”

“They stayed with me and listened to me and encouraged me and supported me and loved me,” says Genetti. “Where else can this happen but Lesley?”

Years of journal entries ­— the writing often repetitive and the ideas muddy — as well as doctors’ reports and therapy notes reconstruct Genetti’s post-traumatic growth (PTG), which involves not only recovering from trauma but also the positive changes that result from the process.

I’m not less than, I’m not inferior. I’m not invalid. I’m not limited.
Dee Genetti ’19, PhD, Educational Studies

For Genetti, that meant admitting she couldn’t get back to her pre-accident, post-graduate self, but also that she could still complete her PhD.

Ever an academic, Genetti naturally did a lot of research on her recovery, through which a topic for her dissertation emerged: a study of the dual diagnosis of TBI and PTSD, using her own well-documented experience. Her thesis is “An Autoethnographic Inquiry of Identity Transformation and Posttraumatic Growth Following Traumatic Brain Injury and PTSD.”

More than a decade after her TBI diagnosis, Genetti still has trouble remembering things, and her injury means she can’t work full-time, but the 61-year-old has done what few thought possible — and she’s not finished. She will continue her disability advocacy, motivational speaking, wants to turn her story into a novel and plans to return to group counseling for people with TBI.

“I believe in promoting disability identity as a culture of pride and strength, not pity and shame,” says Genetti. “I look at disability as a different way of moving through the world. I’m not less than, I’m not inferior. I’m not invalid. I’m not limited. I do things differently. I can still show up. I can still accomplish equally. I can still use my mind.”