#CrippingSocialWork: Why Disability is a Social Work Issue

Image shows the hashtag #CrippingSocialWork in white letters against a solid blue background. This hashtag was created by social worker Lynne Fetter.
Image shows the hashtag #CrippingSocialWork in white letters against a solid blue background.

Audio recording of the essay “Cripping Social Work: Why Disability Is a Social Work Issue”

Lynne Fetter // @LGFetter

We don’t talk enough about disability in social work. We certainly don’t talk enough about it when we consider that 25% of the US population experiences some form of disability (CDC, 2018). Specifically, social workers don’t discuss ableism (prejudice and discrimination against people with disabilities) and how it affects our profession inside and out. We also don’t discuss ways to make the social work profession truly accessible. How do we make our profession accessible from physical, sensory, cognitive, and emotional standpoints? We need to have that conversation. 

I love this profession, and I believe we can do better. With that in mind, I’ve created the hashtag #CrippingSocialWork so that disabled social workers*** can find community and nondisabled allies can learn from us. It’s important to note that I use the term “crip” here because disabled people have reclaimed it as a positive term of disability pride and empowerment. It is firmly rooted in disability justice culture, which was pioneered by women of color–namely Patty Berne of Sins Invalid, Mia Mingus, and the late Stacey Park Milbern. Patty Berne (2020) explained that the disability justice movement seeks to center the voices of those most marginalized, including Black or Indigenous people of color and others who have historically been overlooked by the Disability Rights movement. Social work has a great deal to learn from disability justice culture. #CrippingSocialWork in particular was inspired by #CripTheVote, a hashtag created by Alice Wong and Andrew Pulrang (#CripTheVote, 2018). Why am I #CrippingSocialWork?

I’m #CrippingSocialWork because this profession, as it stands right now, is not one in which I feel I can breathe freely as a disabled social worker. 

I’m #CrippingSocialWork because disabled social workers deserve to feel that our profession welcomes us, our perspectives, and our wisdom. 

I’m #CrippingSocialWork because disabled social work students deserve to see disability representation in this profession. 

I’m #CrippingSocialWork because our disabled clients deserve to feel heard and understood. 

I’m #CrippingSocialWork because nondisabled social workers need to develop cultural humility around disability. 

I’m #CrippingSocialWork because dismantling ableist systems is anti-oppressive practice. 

I’m #CrippingSocialWork because every social work issue is a disability issue: 

All of these issues we care about in social work (and more) intersect with disability in some meaningful and important way. 

I’m #CrippingSocialWork because disability is a social work issue

To my fellow disabled social workers: what does #CrippingSocialWork mean to you? Nondisabled social work allies–I challenge you to ask the disabled social worker(s) in your life what #CrippingSocialWork means to them. What will you do to make the profession more accessible to disabled social workers? 

Together, we can change the conversation around disability in social work. I believe in us. 

Plain-language summary: 

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Audio recording of the plain language version of this post.

Social workers don’t talk about disability enough. We don’t talk about ableism and access. I made the hashtag #CrippingSocialWork to talk about these things. Allies can also use the hashtag to learn from disabled people. Disabled social workers and students deserve to feel valued. We deserve to see ourselves in social work. We need to serve our disabled clients well. Disability justice is part of social justice. Social work issues are disability issues. Disability is a social work issue. What does #CrippingSocialWork mean to you? What does #CrippingSocialWork mean to your disabled friends? I love this profession. I believe we can do better. 

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Audio recording of the language note and author bio

***Language use around disability can be a contentious issue. Different parts of the disability community disagree about which language to use. Some disabled people prefer person-first language. Others prefer identity-first language. Person-first language is “people with disabilities.” Identity-first language is “disabled people.” The author of this post has chosen to use identity-first language. However, either one is valid. Social workers should respect the language clients or students use to refer to themselves and their disabilities. 

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Lynne Fetter is a disabled MSW student at Virginia Commonwealth University. She completed her generalist internship at the Center on Transition Innovations at VCU and will be interning at VCU’s Partnership for People with Disabilities starting in the fall of 2020 during her concentration year in Social Work Administration, Planning, and Policy Practice (SWAPPP). She has a particular passion for speaking and writing about disability representation in social work. 

References

#CripTheVote. (2018, March 27). Frequently asked questions. #CripTheVote. https://cripthevote.blogspot.com/2018/03/frequently-asked-questions.html

American Civil Liberties Union. (2020, July 2). Disability rights and the criminal legal system. https://www.aclu.org/issues/disability-rights/disability-rights-and-criminal-legal-system?redirect=issues/disability-rights/disability-rights-and-criminal-justice

The Arc. (n.d. [a]). Education. https://thearc.org/policy-advocacy/education-policy-advocacy/

The Arc. (n.d. [b]). Housing. https://thearc.org/policy-advocacy/housing/

Berne, P. (2020, June 16). What is disability justice? Sins Invalid. https://www.sinsinvalid.org/news-1/2020/6/16/what-is-disability-justice

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). (2018). CDC: 1 in 4 US adults live with a disability. https://www.cdc.gov/media/releases/2018/p0816-disability.html

Coalición Nacional Para Latinxs con Discapacidades (CNLD). (2018, February 21). Statement on policies regarding immigrants and refugees with disabilities. http://www.latinxdisabilitycoalition.com/uploads/7/4/2/0/74201671/cnld_sign-on_immigration_refugees_disability_english.pdf

Coleman-Jensen, A., & Nord, M. (2013, May 6). Disability is an important risk factor for food insecurity. USDA Economic Research Service. https://www.ers.usda.gov/amber-waves/2013/may/disability-is-an-important-risk-factor-for-food-insecurity#:~:text=A%20number%20of%20studies%20have,or%20a%20low-quality%20diet

Davis, L. A. (2015, November 12). Youth with disabilities in the juvenile justice system: A nationwide problem. The Coalition for Juvenile Justice. https://www.juvjustice.org/blog/971

Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund (DREDF). (2020, January 3). Healthcare access. https://dredf.org/healthcare-access/

Movement Advancement Project (MAP). (2019). LGBTQ people with disabilities. https://www.lgbtmap.org/file/LGBT-People-With-Disabilities.pdf

National Coalition Against Domestic Violence (NCADV). (2018, March 13). Domestic violence and people with disabilities: What to know, why it matters, and how to help. National Coalition Against Domestic Violence. https://ncadv.org/blog/posts/domestic-violence-and-people-with-disabilities#:~:text=People%20with%20disabilities%20are%20three,crime%20against%20men%20with%20disabilities

National Council on Disability (NCD). (2012). Rocking the cradle: Ensuring the rights of parents with disabilities and their children. https://ncd.gov/sites/default/files/Documents/NCD_Parenting_508_0.pdf

R, A. (2020, July 20). The burden and consequences of self-advocacy for disabled BIPOC. Disability Visibility Project. https://disabilityvisibilityproject.com/2020/07/19/the-burden-and-consequences-of-self-advocacy-for-disabled-bipoc/

Slayter, E. (2016). Youth with disabilities in the United States child welfare system. Children and Youth Services Review, 64, 155-165. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.childyouth.2016.03.012

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). (2019). Mental and substance use disorder treatment for people with physical and cognitive disabilities (PEP19-02-00-002). https://store.samhsa.gov/sites/default/files/d7/priv/pep19-02-00-002_508_022620.pdf

Yu, T. (2019, April 23). It’s time to recognize climate change as a disability rights issue. Rooted in Rights. https://rootedinrights.org/its-time-to-recognize-climate-change-as-a-disability-rights-issue/

Social work and structural ableism: Thinking about disability and police violence

BLACK DISABLED LIVES MATTER!
BLACK DISABLED LIVES MATTER!

Conversations about police violence are happening all over the world since the killing of Mr. George Floyd – among so many other Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPoC). Needless to say, it is a travesty that so many before him died and many didn’t have these conversations in the ways that people are having them now, but at least more people are having them now. And I want to add a disability thread to that conversation, but first…

Several years prior to 2020, Professor Kimberlé Crenshaw added a different thread to the conversation about BIPoC deaths at the hands of police by talking about gender and all of the women who have died due to police violence, but whose names are not known. We got to know the #sayhername movement. People began to think intersectionally about race and gender even if the mainstream news media didn’t report much about the deaths of BIPoC women killed by police.

But there only recently have we learned that 30-50% of the BIPoC people who have died at the hands of police in this country over a three year period had something else in common, they had a disability. This fact was unearthed by the Ruderman Family Foundation in a white paper that examined media coverage of such cases (PDF file here). It was necessary to study this phenomenon this way as there is no legal requirement for police to track disability data related to arrests or deaths. Did you know that Sandra Bland had a disability? Freddie Gray? Elijah McClain?

In studying media reporting, the Foundation noted that disability was either not mentioned, listed as a non-contextualized attribute, used to evoke sympathy for the victim OR to blame the victim and in rare cases allowed for discussion of the intersecting forces that led to lethal use of force situations. The report concludes that “When disabled Americans get killed and their stories are lost or segregated from each other in the media, we miss an opportunity to learn from tragedies, identify patterns, and push for necessary reforms.”

Although disabled people make up 1/3 of all households in the United States, that’s 61 million people or about 25% of the U.S. population, I feel as though we are so often *unseen* and *unremembered* in social work circles, our identity is an afterthought. Social worker need to begin to see with a disability lens, to remember disability as an identity. And in working with disabled people, social workers need to think about the ways that they can prevent the deaths of disabled people at the hands of police – and especially BIPoC disabled people. Disability justice advocate Haben Girma, especially, has been out front on this with respect to individual interactions with the police, but let’s think about this more structurally.

Here are a few questions that can guide your work – notice that they move beyond the usual band-aid “train the police to work with disabled folks” response that we usually get and move towards the goal of structural reform! Just as we need to think about structural racism in confronting police violence, so too do we need to think about structural ableism.

  • How can we raise disability culture awareness *throughout* our local police precincts?
  • Are there ways we can rid those precincts of structural ableism such as through the identification and elimination of ableist thinking, tendencies and practices?
  • Are there strategic partnerships we can facilitate that can bridge disability justice advocates with law enforcement and social service partners toward this effort?
  • Are there alternative conflict and dispute resolution systems that we can fund in order to avoid police involvement in “hot situations?”

Are you willing to fight for disability justice in your social work world?

 

Language is power: Two things you need to know for practice with disabled people

language is power
Image from http://www.differenttruths.com

Did you know that over one fifth of the United States population has an impairment that leads to a disability? Given this, social workers are bound to engage in practice with disabled people across many service sectors – a reality which leads to the need for disability competence – and that includes competence around language choices. Whether you are working in child welfare, employee assistance programs, criminal justice or end-of-life care, you will need some guidance on how to approach your work with disabled people in a respectful manner. Here are two helpful things you need to know to be a better social worker in partnership with disabled people.

First, it is always ideal to look to your professional association for guidance. In the case of practice with the disability community, the National Association of Social Workers has a disability policy statement, but they choose not to use the term “disabled” in a major change to their Code of Ethics (CoE). While the CoE is the guide post in our profession, and in setting out standards for practice, it doesn’t do so well on language use around disability.  The names a series of diversity factors, including, for example, race, ethnicity and national origin. Until the most recent revision of the CoE however,  NASW notes that “disability was the only diversity factor that was not framed in a positive light.” To “rectify” this, the current version of the CoE replaces the term “disability” with “ability” in order to present what they think of as a more strength-based framework that can counteract dominant society norms that belie the capacities of disabled people. Specifically, the CoE states that social workers should “obtain education and seek to understand the nature of social diversity and oppression” with respect to people with varying abilities. This is likely a turn off to people that embrace identity-first language (i.e. disabled people vs. people with disabilities). As a disabled person myself, I agree. What’s wrong with disability? There’s even a hashtag campaign out there called #SayTheWord in order to move people towards an embrace of the term. While we are talking about what is and is not offensive to disabled people, check out these words that are considered outdated and offensive, akin to “differently abled,” “handicapped,” or “special needs.” Also check out, for example, Lydia X. Z. Brown’s glossary of ableist phrases.

Second, it is also always a best practice to learn more about the language preferences from our clients’ cultural communities. Lately, not a day goes by on my Twitter feed when I don’t see commentary from disabled people about their preferences for either person-first language or identity-first language. Check out the #identityfirst hashtag, for example. For many years, social workers were encouraged to use person-first language as a way of showing respect, as opposed to labeling someone as “a schizophrenic,” or “autistic,” for example, both of which were felt to have negative connotations at the time. Proponents of identity-first language have reclaimed such terms by embracing their disability identity first. For example, a well-known disability rights leader prefers to be called Autistic, and another advocate prefers to be referred to as mad (signifying mental illness). For social workers new to practice with disabled people, an ideal approach could involve using approaches interchangeably until it is clear what type of language is preferred by the client in question. Remember, language is a key component to client engagement, and, therefore, language is power.

Regardless of whether you are identifying populations with varying abilities in identity-first language use, or honoring your clients’ wishes for person-first or identity-first language, the most important thing is to see people for who they are, not for the stereotypes or assumptions that often precede them.

 

 

Why I love Gimpgirl.com: How Disability culture can inform mentoring girls with disabilities

BSAGB_full_logo_color_NEWI am a social work intern at the Big Sister Association of Boston. This is a unique organization, as it is the only gender-specific branch of Big Brother Big Sister in the United States. This is an important fact as research suggests that girls experience mentoring relationships differently than boys do. Additionally, research suggests that girls have gender-specific needs that can best be addressed by gender-sensitive support. One of the values of the Big Sister Association of Boston is cultural responsiveness, as the agency finds it important to learn about and embrace cultural differences – and this is where Disability culture comes in.

Disability social workers Romel Mackelprang and Richard Salsgiver discuss the emergence of Disability culture and assert that it is not only an identity but a ‘way of life,’ similar to race or ethnicity. I feel that it is critical that when conceptualizing how to be cultural responsive that Big Sister mentors keep Disability in mind as a type of culture. Recognizing Disability culture is important because we work with Little Sisters ages seven through twenty, as well as volunteer Big Sisters over the age of eighteen, and any of these girls and women may have a disability.

In addition to being aware of the language and history of Disability culture in order to show respect, we must also understand that there is a community aspect of Disability culture that can have great social benefits for the people we work with. The goal of our mentoring program is to strategically match girls with mentors who have similar interests and experiences as them. Therefore, making an effort to match girls and mentors with disabilities can have the added benefit of sharing an understanding of a common experience and culture, therefore making the match relationship even more impactful.

In their book, Romel Mackelprang and Richard Salsgiver share the story of Carolyn and Marnie, two women who met and “developed a sisterhood formed from shared circumstances….their self-concepts and meanings they ascribed to their disabilities were similar.” Further, the authors note that Carloyn and Marnie had “few or no role models with disabilities, their disabilities were defined as negative, shameful…were isolated from others like themselves.”

The concepts of sisterhood and community are two more of the Big Sister Association of Boston’s values, and increased confidence is an outcome goal held by the program. As the relationship between women can be so powerful, it is important that Big Sister staff recognize this potential and thoughtfully seek to make matches between women and girls who share experiences as people with disabilities. Big Sister Association of Boston values gender-specific programming, and it is important that this specificity carries over when thinking even further about what it means to not only be a girl, but to the intersection of being a girl with a disability in our society.

One way that Big Sister staff can work on developing knowledge about Disability culture as it relates to girls could be perusing the Gimp Girl website. As a refresher, the Georgetown Health Policy Institute defines cultural competence as “the ability of providers and organizations to effectively deliver health care services that meet the social, cultural, and linguistic needs of patients.” The Gimp Girl website can be used as a resource for Big Sister staff to assist them in the task of continuously working on their cultural competence by becoming fully informed about the views and needs of girls with disabilities in particular. As a non-disabled person, I have permission to access articles and presentations on the site and join their online public forums. The website also includes links to many blogs written by and for girls with disabilities, which can raise awareness of the most current issues and interests of this particular community.

Tuning in to Gimp Girl can help me practice cultural responsiveness by making me aware of the issues and concerns of interest to this population in order to most effectively meet the needs of girls with disabilities in a respectful and accessible way. Realizing that some people might prefer the term ‘gimp’ to the term ‘disabled’ might be important for Big Sister staff to realize vis-à-vis the debate between whether to use person first or disability first language. The website will also help staff to practice cultural humility by reminding them that girls with disabilities have distinct and individual needs, as they describe what it means to experience the intersection of gender identity and disability. Reading about girls’ varying experiences will encourage Big Sister staff to consistently check their own biases and assumptions as well as maintain their position as learners when interacting with girls.

In addition to increasing any given Big Sister staffmembers’ knowledge and awareness about Disability culture, staff will also be able to share this website with Little Sisters if they are not familiar with it. Our agency constantly provides Big Sisters with information, resources, and activities they can use when spending time with their ‘Littles,’ and this website could be a great resource. Big Sisters could explore the website with their Littles to find blogs that their Littles can relate to, or even help Littles join a Support Meeting in the online chat room. I think this resource is something that can benefit all of our staff and the girls and women we serve – and perhaps this will be true for you as well!

Erica Chepulis is a candidate for the degree of Masters in Social Work at Salem State University’s School of Social Work. She holds a B.A. in Social Work from Wheelock College. She hopes to continue her career in working with youth in programs that support their educational, social, and emotional growth and encourage them to reach their full potential. Ms. Chepulis chose to study social work practice with people with disabilities to learn how to most effectively and respectfully advocate for youth with disabilities and their families. Ms. Chepulis can be reached at e_chepulis@salemstate.edu. This article reflects the opinions of Ms. Chepulis, and not the Big Sister Association of Greater Boston.