How an encounter in an airport uncovered my ableism, and made me a better social worker

By Ndia Olivier, M.S.W. Candidate

Salem State University

Ableism is the “belief that because persons with disabilities are not typical of the non-disabled majority, they are inferior (Mackelprang & Salsgiver, 2015 p. 105). After reading this definition, I realized that in certain situations, my ableism shows. I also realized how imperative it is to always check your ableism as a social worker.

One specific example I remember is when I was at a crowded airport waiting to board my flight. An older woman who was in a wheelchair was in the aisle right next to me. Without even thinking, I asked her if she wanted my seat. My offer came from a place of being taught to always be nice to your elders and give up your seat to them – but also because she was in a wheelchair, I assumed she wanted to be more comfortable. Her response was very nice, “No thanks sweetie, I have this old thing,” she said, referring to her wheelchair. She could see on my face how embarrassed I was, and told me that she was not offended by what I had said. Instead, she took it as an opportunity to educate me. She told me to try to be more aware and not assume the needs of people in wheelchairs.

What I did may be categorized as compartmentalization, or the “stereotyping of persons with disabilities or placing them in predetermined categories  (Mackelprang & Salsgiver, 2015 p. 113). Looking back, I pitied the older woman, and automatically assumed she would be more comfortable sitting in a chair like ‘the rest of us.’ Without realizing it, I could have made this woman feel powerless as if she was incapable of making her own decisions regarding her comfortability level. I wanted to normalize her experience as it pertained to me, but quickly learned that she was in a normalized state that pertained to her.

This experience helped me to learn about my ableism and why it is important to consider one’s own ableism in order to be a better social work practitioner. Though we live in an ableist society that perpetuates ableism, it is up to us to challenge those social norms. We need to slow down when encountering people and we need to see people as people first. It is easy to be used to societal norms, but the concept of normalcy is a social construct that is forever changing. As a social worker, we have to be able to enter every encounter with a mind free of assumptions. I believe we should always ask questions first instead of letting our ableism dictate what we think is the right thing for others.

Ndia Oliver 2
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 who is smiling)

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 ndia.olivier@gmail.com. Ms. Olivier can also be reached via social media at @disabilitysw on Twitter.

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