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