foundations from the Foundation:

Tamara Dembo

Dembo, T. (1964). Sensitivity of One Person to Another. Rehabilitation Literature, 25(8), 231-235.

Tamara Dembo, PhD (1902-1993) was an experimental and applied social psychologist. Born in Baku, Russia to Jewish parents she reportedly had a childhood illness that restricted her activities. Her developmental history set the stage for her focus on the socio-psychological factors influencing human behavior toward minority group members. She studied at the University of Berlin with Kurt Lewin who was her thesis advisor.  Her classic studies on anger bolstered Lewin’s theory that behavior was an interactive function of the person in their social context.  She became a widely acclaimed Gestalt Psychologist. Dr. Dembo arrived in the United States in 1930, thus escaping the holocaust in Europe. She later joined Lewin and Beatrice Wright at the University of Iowa. 

Tamara Dembo

Dr. Dembo and colleagues designed research to understand adjustment to physical challenges from the participant’s perspective. She argued that those with physical disabilities should be actively involved in the research process, the beginning of the current participant action research paradigm.  Some of her critical contributions include: the importance of values in acceptance of disability as non-devaluing, the different perspective of insiders versus outsiders, and the importance of addressing the everyday problems of those with a disability. She was also pivotal in the acceptance of qualitative methodology.

Dr. Dembo was central to the establishment of the field of Rehabilitation Psychology. She was part of the founding of Division 22 and served as its president from 1968 to 1969. She was the recipient of the Distinguished Service Award from Division 22 in 1980. In recognition of her foundational contributions to the field, The Wright-Dembo Lecture is given annually at the Rehabilitation Psychology mid-winter conference.

In the attached article, "Sensitivity of One Person to Another", Dr. Dembo explores the interaction of rehabilitation professionals with the parents of a child with severe disability. She argues that the perception of insensitivity is determined not by the professional’s personality, but rather by a number of psychological determinants including the perceived “likelihood of improvement of the handicap.” This classic paper describes the insider versus the outsider distinction and is directly applicable to the issue of maintaining HOPE especially in the emotionally charged situation of patients being “unrealistic” about recovery of function.

In short, understanding the many contributions of Dr. Dembo to the field of Rehabilitation Psychology will help all Rehabilitation Psychologists understand what makes our field unique.


The previous description is largely based on Dr. Sandra Hodson’s biography and Dr. Beatrice Wright’s “Tribute to Tamara Dembo” (1993. Rehabilitation Psychology, 38(4), 285-286).

Sensitivity of One Person to Another

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