Moving beyond “fixing” people: Social work practice with people with disabilities

Graduate social work students in Dr. Elspeth Slayter’s courses at Salem State University were asked to reflect on the ways in which they approach their work with clients with disabilities. Specifically, they were asked to reflect on what aspects of their practice were “under” the medical model of disability and which were “under” the social model of disability. Students were first introduced to the medical model of disability, in which the person’s impairment was the focus. Then, students were introduced to the social model of disability, in which society is seen as the disabling factor as opposed to the part of the person with the impairment. In order to begin to re-visualize what social work practice with a client with a disability would look like, students were asked to answer the following question:

“How can social workers approach the needs of people with disabilities without perpetuating the negative impacts associated with the medical model of disability? Provide a case example and then describe how you could/do/would engage in medical model-informed practice and social model-informed practice with that client.”

By Ndia Olivier, MSW Candidate

Salem State University

Working on a boarding high-school campus, I have the opportunity to be exposed to different students. During my first year, one student, in particular, stood out. J.M. was a breakout basketball star and had dreams of going to the N.B.A. Unfortunately, in his junior year, he was in a terrible car accident and as a result was paralyzed from the waist down. Everyone on campus was affected by his accident because J.M. was such a bright presence on campus and when he came back, he was a different person. He was less interactive on campus and lost his love for basketball.

The adults who were working with him every day were so fixated on the medical model, they wanted to “fix” him as much as they could so he could be ‘normal’ again. They suggested to his mom to take him to the best doctors who specialize helping people who are paraplegic learn to walk through virtual reality. They were not focused on his direct needs because they did not ask him, and that was detrimental to his recovery.

In using the social-model informed practice, the adults working with J.M. should have discussed with him how he saw his recovery going. By placing the focus on him rather than his disability, J.M.’s confidence in recovering could have been more positive than negative. Disability studies scholar Tom Shakespeare discusses the importance of focusing on the individual and not the impairment in order to create a confident space (Shakespeare, 2016).

One of the limits in the social model approach, however, is the idea that individuals with disabilities should disregard their impairments. More specifically, it is stated that “the social model so strongly disowns individual and medical approaches, that it risks implying that impairment is not a problem (Shakespeare, 2016 p. 218)”.

The medical model is helpful when we are utilizing action practices that are suggested by the person with the disability and not the people around them who are looking at it like a problem that needs to be corrected. As social workers, it will only benefit the clients we are working with if we are their advocates and find a balance between the medical model and the social model.

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

Ndia Olivier
This is Ndia Olivier, an MSW candidate at Salem State University’s School of Social Work. (Note for Screenreaders: Image shows a confident Black woman in a yellow dress who is smiling and standing in front of a river)

Ndia Olivier 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 Psychology from College of the Holy Cross. She hopes to do create change and be an advocate for the voiceless with this career. She wanted to study social work practice with people with disabilities to learn about a population she was unfamiliar with. She is striving to be a well-rounded social worker and learning about one of the minority groups in our society and becoming more self-aware, is key. Ms. Olivier can be reached at

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