Unlearning ableism, a social worker’s duty

Ableism shouldn’t be a dirty word – we all need to confront the ways in which it sits within us so that we can do better! Image from: https://rehabpub.com/industry-news/research/study-sheds-light-ableism-biases-toward-people-disabilities/

I have been intertwined with the disabled community for my entire life. My older cousin was diagnosed with an intellectual disability at the age of 4 and I grew up very closely with her. My parents never told me she had a disability. To me she was who she was, my cousin Sara. Although Sara was significantly older than me, I didn’t think it was that strange that she played games with me, watched cartoons with me, or that she couldn’t drive. Sara is 10 years my senior, so she should have been getting her license instead of watching Power PuffGirls with me on Sunday afternoon. I never minded though. It wasn’t until I was older that I understood what an intellectual disability was.My parents always were, and my mother still is, a great educator. They had extensive experience explaining some pretty difficult things to me from a young age, such as being adopted, the concept of being transgender (my grandmother’s friend was a pretty famous trans photographer where I grew up), why my uncle had a husband, and a lot of other topics that many parents have trouble with explaining to their young children. And my parents did a great job.

I entered school with an open mind and I remember myself being overall judgment-free. If only it was that easy. I grew up in a wealthy, upper-middle-class town with a majority White population. I don’t remember being in school with many disabled students, and I am realizing now this is because they were segregated from the rest of the classrooms or their parents had transferred them to other schools that fit their needs better than my public elementary school. Here comes the ableism. Reflecting back on my time in the public school system, I contributed to a fair share of ableism. Knowing what I know now, I would like to go back in time and yell at myself for participating in these things.

My largest memory of being ableist was participating as a teacher’s assistant in the downstairs, special education room. I was 15 and had good intentions of helping. I worked in a classroom with about 7 different children with a range of disabilities. One student, in particular that I worked with was non-verbal and communicated through either note-cards with phrases or via a series of grunts for yes and no. I remember feeling a lot of pity for him. To not be able to communicate at 15 was terrible to me. I also remember them having few expectations for him. The entire day was mostly lifeskills teaching. I remember cooking alot with him, teaching him how to do laundry and other skills that the teacher thought would improve his chances of being more independent. I remember him not doing much academic work, and to this day, I’m not sure if he ever learned things like math or spelling when I was working with him.

I also remember how low the teacher’s and my expectationswere for him. When he would do the most basic of tasks, like throw away his trash, we would give him such high praise. I know now that my expectations should have been higher, and my praise emphasized his internalized ableism of having few skills. The expectations were so low that no one ever thought to put him in speech therapy.No expectations were placed on him to try and communicate other than the flashcards he carried around. But even those just said basic things like “bathroom”, “snack”, etc. No one thought he was capable of using a communication device or even typing on a computer, including me. I just followed what the adults did.They didn’t push him, so I didn’t push him.It never even crossed my mind that he was capableof doing more had he been taught these skills.

My participation in this classroom was harmful, and it changed the way I thought about the disability community in a negative way. I left the classroom thinking that many disabled individuals could not live independently.That they were incapable of being unsupervised. It made me believe it was ok to infantilize these students. That they shouldhave been praised for every small task they completed,even though many of them werefully capable of doing much more. Why did I have such high expectations for my cousin Sara, but not for these students at my school? Why did I shift my attitude to pity? To this day, I still catch myself participating in ableism, but I catch myself a lot faster and try to correct myself. When working with disabled students now, as an adult, I make sure to push them to participate, practice dignity of risk, and encourage them to push themselves to see what they are capable of. I speak openly about their disabilities and practice educating them on what they need to know.I try to send messages of positivity and correct the internalized ableism they feel about themselves.I have come a long way from that girl in the classroom in the basement, but I still have a long way to go. It’s awful having thoughts that you know are wrong but somehow cannot stop yourself fast enough from thinking. It brings me a lot of shame to admit them out loud. But I know that it is important that I do so that others can do the same. Admitting fault is the first step to overcoming the issue, and I have to keep reminding myself, no one is perfect.academic work, and to this day, I’m not sure if he ever learned things like math or spelling when I was working with him.I also remember how low the teacher’s and my expectations were for him. When he would do the most basic of tasks, like throw away his trash, we would give him such high praise. I know now that my expectations should have been higher, and my praise emphasized his internalized ableism of having few skills.The expectations were so low that no one ever thought to put him in speech therapy.No expectations were placed on him to try and communicate other than the flashcards he carried around. But even those just said basic things like “bathroom,” “snack,” etc. No onethought he was capable of using a communication deviceor even typing on a computer,including me. I just followed what the adults did.They didn’t push him, so I didn’t push him.It never even crossed my mind that he was capable of doing more had he been taught the skills. My participation in this classroom was harmful, and it changed the way I thought about the disabled community in a negative way. I left the classroom thinking that many disabled individuals could not live independently.That they were incapable of being unsupervised. It made me believe it was ok to infantilize these students. That they should have been praised for every small task they completed, even though many of them were fully capable of doing much more. Why did I have such high expectations for my cousin Sara, but not for these students at my school? Why did I shift my attitude to pity? To this day, I still catch myself participating in ableism, but I catch myself a lot faster and try to correct myself. When working with disabled students now, as an adult, I make sure to push them to participate, practice dignity of risk, and encourage them to push themselves to see what they are capable of. I speak openly about their disabilities and practice educating them on what they need to know. I try to send messages of positivity andcorrect the internalized ableism they feel about themselves.I have come a long way fromthat girl in the classroom in the basement, but Istill have a long way to go. It’s awful havingthoughts that you know are wrong but somehow cannotstop yourself fast enough fromthinking. It brings me a lot of shame to admit themout loud. But I know that it is importantthat I do so that others can do the same. Admittingfault is the first step to overcoming theissue, and I have to keep reminding myself, no oneis perfect.

Author bio: Mia Hayden is a MSW student at Salem State University in Salem, Massachusetts. She received her undergraduate education at Roger Williams University with double majors in Anthropology & Sociology, and double minors in Psychology and Educational Studies. She is pursuing a masters in social work to  help young children on their journey through the school system and on their way to adulthood. Being an Asian-American adoptee has driven her to become passionate about anti-oppressive practice and social justice.

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