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.

My sons, my ableism, my social work practice: Lessons learned

Social workers are deeply influenced by their home life. In order to be a reflective practitioner, I feel it is vital to take a look at myself and how my home life influences my social work practice. As part of my course on social work practice with people with disabilities, I was asked to consider my own ableism. I am sad to admit that within my own personal life, I have engaged in ableism. Ableism is defined by Mackelprang and Salsgiver (2015) as “the belief that because persons with disabilities are not typical of the non-disabled majority, they are inferior” (Mackelprang & Salsgiver, 2015, p.105).  Upon reflection, I realize that I tend to engage in ableism when I protect my children from the harsh realities of the world, even though I am not. For example, I tend to think that because my son has Autism, or that my other son has an intellectual disability, that they may not be able to handle life’s challenges.  Actually, they are quite competent in handling many situations without my added help or support.

I realize that I tend to view my children and other people with disabilities with a ‘containment’ lens.  Namely, I always feel that I am limiting the choices of those with a disability be it about going to a party, or getting part time employment.  I tend to not let my child with intellectual disabilities go to the mall with his friends, fearing that he might not pay for an item, or might get treated unfairly by a store employee if he doesn’t understand a price.  I also view my son with Autism as a child for whom college is not an option.  Honestly, I don’t know why I make these assumptions.  I now understand that they are wrong, and I am actively working on ending my ‘containment’ mothering approach. I’m now striving to provide equal opportunities to each of my children, and hoping to push them towards their highest potential.

Ableism is closely linked to the lens of the medical model of disability in which the impairment is seen as the problem, versus the social environment. Sometimes, for example, I see my children through this lens, and that is unfair to their development and self-esteem.  Specifically, when any family member hears that there is something ‘wrong’ with my child, the first thought that comes into my head relates to how I am going to ‘fix’ the problem.  In these moments, I am reacting in fear – of the unknown and of the future. Lately, I have gotten farther away from the medical model and ableist views. Realizing my children, and that other people living with disabilities are great the way they are, and don’t need to be fixed, is a very freeing feeling. I no longer feel as if I am on a race to the finish, but rather on a journey of discovery.

Learning about the social model of disability has also helped me to reflect on my own ableism. I love the work of disability studies scholar Tom Shakespeare, who describes the challenges of an overly-medicalized view of people with disabilities. He defines disability as “the disadvantage or restriction of activity caused by a contemporary social organization which takes little or no account of people who have physical impairments and thus excludes them from participation in the mainstream social activities” (Shakespeare, 2002, p. 124).  This social model thinking can also be applied to how I view my children.  I am quick to blame the schools, for not helping my sons gain their skills, and educational needs fast enough.  I am quick to point out that they do not have the best equipment or the resources to help my children be fully integrated into regular classes.

This social model of thinking about disability has its downside, though.  Shakespeare notes that the world cannot be a barrier free environment and that it isn’t possible to have a barrier free world for everyone.  In this vein, I engaged in ableism with my children when I do not let them explore and challenge environments that I cannot fix for them.  School is hard for my son with intellectual disabilities.  Sometimes life is just hard.  If I continue to blame society, blame the system, or even blame my children for their struggles, then I am doing them a disservice and wasting valuable time not enjoying the uniqueness and abilities of the people around me. All of this has implications for how I practice as a social worker!

Mackelprang, R. & Salsgiver, R.  (2015). 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.

Erica Sarro
Erica Sarro, MSW Candidate at Salem State University (Note for Screenreaders: Photo depicts a young white woman with dark hair, sitting in a car)

Erica Sarro 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 Salem State University. She hopes to continue her career in policy-related macro social work. Mrs. Sarro chose to study social work practice with people with disabilities in order to become a better advocate for equal rights for people with disabilities. Mrs. Sarro can be reached at e_sarro@salemstate.edu. Her blog posts are published at www.disabilitysocialwork and you can Tweet her at @disabilitysw.

 

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.