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.



Why social workers should learn about disability culture

By Sage Lucas, MSW Candidate

Salem State University

Understanding disability culture is one of the most important things you can do as a social worker. Judith Heumann, noted disability civil rights advocate, talks about the importance of accessibility in everyday life, as well as people’s attitudes towards the disability culture and community. You can see these comments on this YouTube video. Ms. Heumann goes over the fact that one of the most limiting parts of improving disability culture is working on what other non-disabled people think (Heumann, 2012).

I think that Ms. Heumann’s comments ring true for working in the social work profession as well. I say this because when one has a certain view about a group of people or a program, it can determine whether one has an overall positive or negative view of a person with a disability. Also, our own views can help skew other people’s views as well, so we should be aware of this.

Another reason why it is so important to have an understanding of disability culture as a social work practitioner is so that we may advocate for and with our clients who are persons with disabilities. According to Duprè (2012), “disability activists and theorists have also deconstructed the way that disabled people have been depicted in history, literature, art and in the entertainment industry. In doing so they not only bring existing normative sub-texts to light but write alternative perspectives which incorporate the lived experiences of disabled people as active agents in culture, rather than passive and dependent receivers of cultural messages and meanings (Duprè, 2012, p. 178).” This point has huge relevance for advocating for how others see our social work clients.

I would also like to recommend a disability culture-related resource to social workers practicing with people with disabilities. This resource is Emotions Anonymous (EA),. Emotions Anonymous was created in the 1970’s and is similar to groups such as Alcoholics or Narcotics Anonymous, but instead of focusing on substance use disorders, they focus on feelings and emotions. According to the EA website, ” …members come together in weekly meetings for the purpose of working toward recovery from any sort of emotional difficulties. EA members are of diverse ages, races, economic statuses, social and educational backgrounds. The only requirement for membership is a desire to become well emotionally” (EA, 2017). EA provides members with a support system as well as a day-to-day programs to attend in order to help cope with strong emotions. Mostly, however, EA helps members find that they are not alone in their struggle. This resource can help me to support my work around cultural competence with people with mental health disorders as this group opens new doors to understanding emotions in a different way than I have in the past. Many members from the partial hospitalization program I work in have similar difficulties in processing emotions.

As my clients have voiced that they are afraid no one else understands what they are going through, this resource is a great 12-step program for understanding how to cope with strong emotions. This resource is also helpful to me as a social worker in my efforts to be culturally responsive , as while I learn about the program, I can better understand the difficulties some clients may go through with coping with their emotions. Learning more about EA will also help me to develop my skills in cultural humility as most of the time I think it is very easy for me to share my emotions so when I hear that someone is having a hard time sharing their emotions I think that it can be silly and maybe all they need to do is share. This resource can help me understand that it is not always that easy to share emotions and some people need extra support.

In summary, I feel that by taking the time to learn more about disability culture-specific resources, I may be able to be a better social worker for my clients with disabilities.

BIO photo
Sage Lucas, MSW Candidate at Salem State University (Note for screenreader: Image of a young white woman smiling, in a car)

Sage Lucas is a candidate for the degree of Masters in Social Work at Salem State University’s School of Social Work. She holds a Bachelors in Social Work, with minors in Criminal Justice and Psychology from Salem State University, and Sage also holds a certificate in Childhood Studies from Salem State University. She hopes to continue her career in social work, working in the mental health field. Ms. Lucas chose to study social work practice with people with disabilities because she found a gap in her knowledge as a social work, and wanted to be as well rounded a social worker as possible. Ms. Lucas can be reached at s_lucas1@salemstate.edu