“School sucks for a blind student:” Creating disability-affirming classrooms for blind students

Ben Chase, BSW Candidate and Elspeth Slayter, MSW, MA, PhD

Recently, Ben, a legally blind social work student with partial visual impairment wrote to Elspeth, saying “school sucks for a blind student at Salem State.” With a 4.0 grade point average and consistently positive attitude towards learning, Ben helped me to learn about the experiences leading to this statement. Honoring the disability justice principle that disabled people are the best experts on their lives, let us learn from Ben’s experience so we can do better at moving beyond creating disability-inclusive spaces, to fostering disability-affirming spaces. Visual access is an implicit requirement for learning. Most educators don’t consider how much visual access matters until they accommodate a blind student. Even then, they tend to underestimate their access needs. So, what barriers do blind students face?

Let’s start with the classroom space. What is the setup of the classroom, are there rolling desks that are never in the same place? Where are students sitting and what desks are taken? How many students are in the room, and who are they? Where is the door? Is there an unspoken culture about everyone sitting in the same seat? Will someone accidentally sit in an awkward place or without socially acceptable proximity to others due to lack of depth perception? Once in the classroom, depending on the student’s vision, there are often social problems, such as lack of connection with other students, disability microaggressions, and active ableism. 

Lighting is also a vital issue for blind students in terms of brightness, color, and placement (overhead vs. lamp). Ben reports “My eyes are light-sensitive, fluorescent overhead lights create a glare. This is why I wear hats on campus. Turning the lights on after they’ve been off for a while is incredibly painful if I’m not aware when it’s going to happen, so I can cover my eyes.”  A number of blind students report eye fatigue after straining/using vision for a while, requiring them to need to take breaks due to the pain they are experiencing. Another student reports “professors never handle this well in my experience, one boldly told me I could just leave if I didn’t feel like being in class versus giving an excuse.”

The colors and writing styles used in classroom presentations also matter in creating affirming spaces vis-à-vis writing on the board (cursive vs. print, light colors) or the presentation of non-accessibly designed slides. All images on slides need to have an ‘alt text’ description (right click the image to add that) so that students can access the image. If you included the image for your students, it was meant to facilitate their learning, so why wouldn’t you want all students to access it? Also, showing videos without audio description enabled often leaves blind students confused because much of the context in the video is accessed visually. Audio descriptions are a similar concept to closed captions except they’re verbal. They only provide brief descriptions of key visual contexts that are essential to know for the storyline. Imagine a 5 minute scene montage with a musical overlay only. There’s no way for blind people to know what’s happening there.

Digital materials and handouts are also areas to consider. For some blind students with accommodations, handouts should be sent to blind students ahead of time so that they can read the documents with their screen readers or screen magnifiers or other assistive technology. They may be unable to do this right in the classroom. Anything requiring handouts may be a problem, such as an attendance sheet, as completely blind people cannot always write, and partially blind people may only read written material with dark markers. One common problem reported on the use of in-class handouts is that faculty take a photo of a handout with their smartphone and email it to their blind students, not understanding that screen readers cannot read the text in a photo. Digital materials, especially PDF files, need to be in the format that screen readers can access, not in photo format. Websites for assignments are often inaccessible or difficult to navigate for screen readers and or another assistive technology. Website navigation issues could result in an assignment taking three times the amount of time intended when a screen reader is involved.

Overall, professors should be aware of visual access barriers and act on them ahead of time, taking initiative in creating disability-affirming spaces, including when guest lecturers are present. This is an aspect of disability etiquette. Asking blind students “what has worked for you in the past?” is a great place to start. Communicating with Disability Services about how to best accommodate an individual is vital, as is being open to constructive feedback. Central to this work is being self-aware of unintended ableist attitudes and behaviors. Disability pride movements are common, and many blind students are happy to be part of disability culture without being ‘fixed.’ Most importantly, blind students don’t want to be anyone’s inspiration, they just want to fit in.

So let’s act on all of this wisdom from our students. As educator Dr. bell hooks once said, “what we do is more important than what we say or what we say we believe.” Let’s do better for blind students, so another student doesn’t come to us saying that school sucks for them at Salem State.

Sexual education & disability: Why this should matter to social work practitioners

Image from Stand up! A feminist youth-led project in Scotland that addresses sexual violence (https://www.standuprasash.com/blog/where-has-all-the-sexual-education-gone)

What do you get when you mix the taboo nature of discussing sexual intimacy with the social stigma surrounding intellectual and developmental disabilities? The answer: a heck of a lot more problems than you might think.

I would like to start this piece with a brief exercise one of the health teachers at my high school conducted at the beginning of sex ed. Repeat after me: PENIS. VAGINA. PENIS. VAGINA. Why do you think she would make a room of teenagers yell these words in school? Isn’t that inappropriate? If you think it is, you proved my point from earlier. Sexual intimacy and anything loosely related to sex are currently incredibly taboo topics. To help break down the air of discomfort surrounding such topics, that health teacher did something many are afraid to do: she spoke openly and encouraged others to follow suit.

One could argue these topics are not to be spoken about simply because we are taught to not speak about them. A child can ask why their anatomy is different from their siblings, but they will often be met with shushes or roundabout answers. In many cases, there is no reason for this reaction other than traditional values. Those same values are often times what causes conflict in regard to sexual education in public schools.

My sex ed experience at a public school was mediocre at best. I can recall learning about male and female genitalia as well as the common sexually transmitted infections. Contraceptive tools were discussed but the take-home message was always “abstinence is the best form of birth control.” Consent was not taught nor were the proper ways to actually engage in sex, just that if we did it we should do it safely. This is the public school sex education experience I received as a non-disabled teenager. Seems quite lacking. And if this is what I received, what is the experience of children and adolescents with intellectual and developmental disabilities?

Working in a behavioral school for boys with emotional, developmental, and intellectual disabilities gives me an interesting perspective. The school serves boys aged, in my experience, between seven and eighteen years old. They age out of the school at eighteen despite the progress they have made and still need to make. These students come from any district in Massachusetts and can be of any race and ethnicity. Typically, the school serves a diverse population. They are taught the same subjects most other students in the country are taught just with more academic and therapeutic support. However, these students are not always provided with a health class.

I worry greatly about this institutional deficit, partly due to my own ableism. These students are receiving very little, if any, sexual education during the school year from our faculty and who knows what they see on the Internet and what their families and friends are telling them. As they get older and begin to develop their curiosity, I am worried that they might not always have a reliable source of sexual education. With that, the concept of consent is often discussed but not in relation to intimacy. I don’t know if the connection between consent and sexual activities has been made or if it ever will be in this school setting. I don’t know if some of these students would understand the magnitude of these topics. I’d like to think these kids can do anything, but from what I’ve seen I don’t know if I would feel confident in their understanding. I wish I could feel otherwise.

Confronting my personal ableism has been difficult, but I know it will benefit myself and others in the social work field who do the same. It’s important and necessary to challenge our own ideas. Gaining experience in areas which we hold biases towards educates us more accurately. Critically examining our personal ableist ideas pushes us to gain a different perspective. Through this difficult process, I feel empowered to advocate for a stronger sexual education program for these students and others in similar settings. I would not have developed this drive without looking inwards and confronting my ableism. I encourage all to do the same. Who knows what the next revelation might be?

Editor’s note: This reflection comes at a time when it is recognized that only three U.S. states explicitly include special education students in their sexual education requirements despite high rates of sexual abuse in this community. Specifically, the disability community experiences sexual abuse at seven times the rate of the non-disabled community according to the Department of Justice. Read more about this in a recent Op Ed by Cammie McGovern.

Max Goldberg is an MSW student at Salem State University. He completed his undergraduate degree at Roger Williams University, studying Psychology with a focus in Clinical Psychology as well as a minor in Professional and Public Writing. Previously, Max has held a range of roles in multiple educational settings. Upon completing his graduate studies, Max aspires to work with the Deaf community as an advocate and educate the hearing world on the various issues d/Deaf people face. 

#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: 

——-

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. 

——-

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. 

——-

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/

How wearing high heels during my commute helped me to be a better social worker

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A pair of red high-heeled shoes sitting on a white surface

Ableism is “the belief that because persons with disabilities are not typical of the non-disabled majority, they are inferior” (Mackelprang and Salsgiver, p. 105). Upon reflection, I have engaged in ableism against people with physical disabilities while on public transportation. Typically, I take public transportation during the peak hours of commuting to work between 7 a.m. and 9 a.m. and leaving work between 4p.m. and 6p.m. There are signs on the bus indicating that when a person with a disability enters the bus they are to be given seats in the front. Typically, people with wheelchairs or motorized chairs, walkers, canes and women with baby strollers occupy those seats; however when the bus is crowded during those peak times there is somewhat of a ‘all bets are off approach’ to seating and people tend to disregard those signs.

My example of demonstrating ableism involves a woman with a motorized chair who entered the bus one day. When she boarded the bus, everyone sitting in the front had to move towards the back to make space for her to enter and turn her chair towards the front. On this particular day, I had had a very bad interaction with a client at work. Mentally, I was not in a good state of mind as a result. I also had on heels which made my feet hurt from standing. Seats on either the left or the right could be used for a person with a disability, however the woman entered the bus and immediately looked towards the right where I was sitting. I knew this meant that I, along with another woman, should stand up and make room for her. The bus was very crowded and therefore moving towards the back felt like a nearly impossible task in order to make space for the woman in the motorized chair.

Without realizing it at the time, I was perpetuating a system of oppression onto the woman with a disability. Tom Shakespeare (2013) writes that the “social model (of disability) demonstrates that the problems disabled people face are the result of social oppression and exclusion, not their individual deficits”(p. 217). Looking back, I recall that I was upset that the woman with the motorized chair had turned to my side of the bus and I had had to get up. This response perpetuates a cycle of oppression because I used her disability as a source of rationalizing why she should be excluded from the bus.

Although I did not say anything verbally to the woman in the motorized chair, my face and body language gave a very descriptive picture of how angry I was that I had to move. The other women that were sitting next to me were verbal with their anger and made comments such as “she should have waited for the next bus, as there’s no space” and “why do we have to move for her?” In the moment I agreed with those women, and their outbursts. I was upset, tired, and in pain because of my heels. My only thoughts were selfish thoughts about wanting to get home so that I could get comfortable.

In retrospect, our attitudes were ableist because we were ostracizing the woman with a disability and trying to exclude her from riding the bus as everyone else was doing. I likened these feelings to feelings of the ‘survival of the fittest’; mentality that was prevalent during Darwin’s lifetime. People with disabilities were viewed as ‘undesirable’ and every effort was made to treat them as outsiders in society rather than practice inclusivity (Kevles, 1995, para. 2). At that time, people with disabilities were not viewed as fit to be amongst abled-bodied people. But back to the bus, the signs clearly acknowledged that the seats were for persons with disabilities or the elderly but due to our own selfish reasoning and justification we did not feel that that was satisfactory enough to warrant giving a seat to the woman in the motorized chair.

It is important for people to recognize their ableist nature so that when situations similar to the one discussed arise they can approach it with respect and empathy rather than disdain for the person with a disability.

Kelves, D. (1995). Essay: In the Name of Darwin. Retrieved August 14, 2017, from http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/evolution/darwin/nameof/page02.html

Mackelprang, R. & Salsgiver, R. (1999). Disability: A diversity model approach in human service practice, 3rd edition. New York: Lyceum Books.

Shakespeare, T. (2013). The social model of disability. In Ed., Davis, L. (2013). The Disability Studies Reader, Fourth Edition. New York: Routledge.

This essay was written by an anonymous M.S.W. Candidate at Salem State University’s School of Social Work in Salem, Massachusetts.  The author may be reached on Twitter at @disabilitysw or via email at disabilitysocialwork@gmail.com.

Undoing “speaking for” at the doctor’s office: One social worker’s efforts to fight ableism

YAI IDD doctor
A young man who is smiling sits in a doctor’s office. The doctor, in a white coat, puts her hand on the young man’s back. (Image credit: https://www.yai.org)

By Daniel Fraser, M.S.W. Candidate

Salem State University

One of my duties as a group home worker certified by the Medication Administration Program (MAP) is to accompany my clients with intellectual disabilities to doctor’s appointments. My clients often state that they feel more comfortable having me go into the examination room with them during such appointments. In my experience, nurses and doctors most often direct their questions to me rather than speaking directly to the client in the room. While in these appointments with my clients, I now realize that most of the time I take part in ableism, by answering any questions posed by the nurses or doctors, instead of referring them to my clients. There are times when I am aware of this happening, yet, I still answer the questions. However, there are also times when I repeat the question asked of me by the nurse or doctor, to my clients, to have them answer the question for themselves.

After reading more about ableism, and the different life experiences explained by the authors of Disability: A Diversity Model Approach in Human Service Practice (Mackelprang & Salsgiver, 2015), I am more aware that my actions in the doctor’s office with my clients is a form of ableism. As such, I am playing a part in the compartmentalization of my clients.  It is known that those in the medical profession often tend to compartmentalize persons with disabilities, and not recognize people with disabilities as having the same basic human rights as they have, rather they tend to look down on people with disabilities, almost treating them as someone who is less of a person than them (Mackelprang & Salsgiver, 2015).

Looking back, I can now also see this was something I noticed when I first became certified to administer medications.  The very first time I opened the medication book for my clients, I saw the list of medications they had to take, and it seemed to be endless. I remember thinking to myself when I saw the list, “there is no way one person should have to take such a laundry list of medications,” along with thinking, “I wonder how many of these medications counter-balance one another, cancelling out their effectiveness.” Since I have learned about it, I can now see these long lists of medications as a possible result of the application of the medical model of disability (Mackelprang & Salsgiver, 2015). It may be controversial, but it is my belief that my clients are likely only on these medications as a way to either attempt to cure their disabilities, or to speed up the euthanizing process.

Self-awareness of ableism is important, because as social workers, we work toward providing ways for people with disabilities to live their lives as independently as possible. By taking part in ableism, we are continuing to carry on this stigma about people with disabilities, that they are not competent enough to be able to care for themselves, and give their own answers to those in the medical profession.

 Daniel Fraser is a candidate for the degree of Masters in Social Work at Salem State University’s School of Social Work. He holds a B.A. in Social Work from Salem State University. He hopes to do clinical work with students who have varying degrees of cognitive and intellectual disabilities with his career. Mr. Fraser has always enjoyed helping people out, and since joining his current place of employment, has really found his niche, where he can help people, and advocate for independence within the disability community. Mr. Fraser can be reached at d_fraser2@salemstate.edu.  Mr. Fraser can also be reached via social media at @disabilitysw on Twitter.