Taking out the trash: How my client with a disability got me to recognize my own ableism

Cartoon image of a trash can with a variety of trash and garbage in and around it
It took her noticing that her client was capable of doing everyday tasks (like taking out the trash) for her to recognized her own ableism,

While studying how to be a social worker in practice with people with disabilities, I have learned that it is important to consider my own ableism. When I sat down and thought about it, I have engaged in ableism by practicing what Mackleprang and Salsgiver (2015) call compartmentalization. When I worked at a local organization for people with disabilities, I worked with a female diagnosed with Rett Syndrome. She was unable to walk or talk and was not expected to live a long or fulfilling life. At the time, I pitied this woman because she was such a sweet and caring person. As a result, I wanted her to be able to have a life where she could walk and talk. As Mackleprang and Salsgiver (2015) describe, I incorporated the medical model of disability into my work and started treating her like a child. I did not allow her to be independent even though she was capable of doing so. She had learned to function with her disability and I was ignoring this and not allowing her to live as normal of a life as she could have. She had learned to use her own form of sign language and was learning independent skills and yet I was doing everything for her.

Luckily, I was working with someone who had worked with this woman for over one year and she was able to point out my mistakes. For example, my coworker showed me that this woman could load and unload the dishwasher, set the table and take out the trash. Over time, I also learned how to interpret my client’s form of sign language. Admittedly, I was not perfect and I engaged in ableism with this woman from time to time. There was one time where I actually put this woman in a childlike state again and spoke for her, as I assumed the parental role and thought I knew what was best. At that point we had a formed a relationship so she was able to sign to me to allow her to speak. Learning to truly listen to our clients through our own ableism is an important skill to master.

In retrospect, I am thankful for the process of learning that allowed me to not engage in ableism with this woman. I am also thankful that she did not allow the stereotype that I placed on her to control how she was already functioning. She was patient with me and continued asserting her independence. This woman was strong enough to not allow me or any other person to determine how she was going to be labeled. By working with this woman, I was able to learn how to recognize when I am engaging in ableism. She has made me a better social worker.

As a social worker practitioner, it is important to consider one’s own ableism so one does not stereotype against the clients they are working with. When you are able to recognize your ableism, you will be able to actively work on not exerting your ableism on others. This also helps form a positive worker-client relationship. If you are open and honest about your ableism it will help the client be more comfortable with you and help them teach you about their disability.

Kasey A Soucy
This is Kasey A Soucy, an MSW candidate at Salem State University’s School of Social Work. (Image shows a confident White woman in a beige sweater who is smiling and standing in front of a forest)

Kasey Soucy 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 Salem State University. She hopes to continue her career with the Department of Children and Families. Ms. Soucy chose to study social work practice with people with disabilities so she can have a better understanding with the clients she works with. She also wants to work with her agency in providing a more inclusive solution for working with people with disabilities. Ms. Soucy can be reached at k_soucy@salemstate.edu or on Twitter at @disabilitysw.

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.

 

Containing schizophrenia: Confronting my ableism towards family members

In trying to understand my own ableism, I realize that I have not done a great deal of professional work with individuals with disabilities. Therefore, I’ll write a bit about the ableism I have engaged in with both my mom and brother as they both have a diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia. My mom has had a disability since before I was born, and my brother’s disability was triggered 7 years ago. While I have made a great deal of improvement in terms of trying to keep ableism out of our family dynamics, I am still not perfect, but I am certainly trying.

As both the daughter and sister of people with paranoid schizophrenia, I have definitely engaged in, and still unconsciously engage in, ableism, that is, the “belief that because persons with disabilities are not typical of the non-disabled majority” (Mackelprang & Salsgiver, 2015, p. 105).

One type of ableism is containment, or “the practice of limiting the choices, exposure, and life experience of disabled persons, as well as opportunities for disabled persons to fully participate in society.” Looking back, I have discouraged my family members from trying to attain jobs, so they would not have to deal with the sadness or embarrassment that had accompanied the loss of previous jobs. I have also done this in order to prevent any disturbances with social assistance services that were in place.

The notion of expendability is also a form of ableism. Expendability is “the belief that persons with disabilities are expendable” (Mackelprang & Salsgiver, 2015, p. 106). I have considered avoiding childbirth out of fear that I would pass the genes for paranoid schizophrenia on to my offspring.

I have also engaged in the form of ableism known as ‘compartmentalization,’ and have, “imposed on them the sick role that prevents persons with disabilities from learning the skills necessary for economic survival and advancement”, when I tried to create a budget for their incomes to avoid an end-of-the-month lapse in funds (Mackelprang & Salsgiver, 2015, p. 115).

And I also admit that I have blamed the victim, which can be described as “the process in which those in authority or positions of respect fault injured parties for externally imposed problems” (Mackelprang & Salsgiver, 2015, p. 116). This has manifested when I have taken out my frustration on the recreational drug use that triggered both of their illnesses, but certainly did not cause their paranoid schizophrenia.

These are just a few of examples of my ableist behaviors that took place before I gained much-needed insight on ableism and disempowerment in my social work practice with people with disabilities course. I think these examples of ableism also provide another justification for the importance of seeing things through an intersectionality lens as well as the connection between poverty and disability. Much of the oppressive ableism that I have engaged in was perpetuated by the need for my family to stay afloat financially, and much of my oppressive anger was coming from a lack of needed resources. As an older and (hopefully) more mature person I can see that my anger was being geared in the wrong the direction.

Throughout my time in this social work course, my professor has worked to normalize the difficulty we face in confronting our own ableism. This is an essential task when you are taking such a critical stance on how your good intentions might have been more oppressive than helpful in social work practice. We, as social workers, know that using confrontation skills before a client is ready can cause the client to shut down. I argue that the same is true for beginning to recognize our own ableism with our clients and with our families. Constant reflection, both as family members and a practitioners, is a tool that pushes us learn from our experiences and generate the self-compassion needed to best confront the oppressions that society has built for our family, friends, and clients.

Mackelprang, R. & Salsgiver, R. (1999). Disability: A diversity model approach in human

service practice, 3rd edition. New York: Lyceum Books.

 

accessibility icon
This anonymous author is an M.S.W. candidate at Salem State University’s School of Social Work in Salem, MA.

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.  This author’s blog posts are published at http://www.disabilitysocialwork.blog.

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.

 

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.

On shoes & procrastination: How a last minute shopping trip led me to confront my own ableism

bceafef03fb0c0009a9b9590df1a38e6--indie-quotes-shower-cap
Image created by the artist known as “Ambivalently Yours.” Note for screenreader: Image of a woman with short hair, looking up, with the words “their ignorance does not define you” over her head and collarbone.

By Rachel Yarid, M.S.W. Candidate

Salem State University

A few months back, I was going to the mall to very last minute fine a pair of shoes that I needed for the next day. The entire process was making me anxious, seeing as I fall all too well into the category of a procrastinator. Frustrated, I saw that the shoes that I wanted didn’t come in my size, of course, and I spent way too much time in DSW looking for something that would work on a 9 ½ girl’s foot on a time crunch. Luckily, once I had found shoes that worked, I went to use the restroom and wanted to head straight home. When I got there, all of the stalls were full and after waiting behind someone, I ended up using the stall for people with disabilities that someone else had just walked out of. I hadn’t thought anything of it, seeing as the restroom was full anyways, and I knew I would be quick because of how badly I wanted to leave.

Almost immediately after I entered the stall, I heard a woman outside complaining that someone was using the designated stall I was in and how “inconsiderate people were becoming.” I called out that I would be out in a minute, and the woman continued to complain. When I was out of the stall, I saw that the woman who had been annoyed with me was actually the woman pushing someone else in a wheelchair. The woman in the wheelchair told me it was okay, however the woman pushing her hastily replied that it wasn’t ok. I looked at the woman in the wheelchair, said thank you for being understanding and apologized for taking up any of her time, and ignored the other woman.

While environments can and should be adapted wherever possible, there remains a disadvantage associated with having impairments that no amount of environmental change could entirely eliminate. People who rely on wheelchairs are often more vulnerable and have fewer choices than the majority of able-bodied people (Shakespeare, 2002). I am sure that the woman who was assisting the woman in the wheelchair had to deal with issues similar to this many, many times. I would never invalidate someone’s emotions, but it was clear that she was exhausted with having to rely on others to accommodate the woman she was with each day. Although the way she went about it wasn’t appropriate and felt almost embarrassing to the woman in the wheelchair, I am sure I could have handled it differently myself. I ended up reflecting on it for the rest of the day and had felt bad for the woman in the wheelchair.

As Mackelprang & Salsgiver (2015) say, society’s worst flaw of viewing those with a disability is through pity. This is something I have done, and I need to change in order to view people with disabilities as more independent and capable human beings. Through this aspect of their words, and considering someone as a “poor soul” even, I have fed into ableism in a multitude of ways without even recognizing it. Not only as a social work student but as someone fortunate enough to live in the community of Salem, Massachusetts, that flourishes with diversity, I feel as though it should be a part of my natural instinct to want to understand others the best that I can. With a sense of understanding, or at least maintaining the perspective of being open to others differences, I’m not only leaving the door open to gain knowledge for my own benefits but for the benefit of maintaining a balance within the flow of our community. Even when it’s in a situation of last-minute shopping and feeling overwhelmed, it is important for myself and everyone around me to make sure I stay grounded in these beliefs.

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.

Processed with VSCO with f1 preset
Social work student Rachel Yarid standing in front of a large graffiti mural on a rock face. Mural says “you are conscious matter.”

Rachel Yarid is a candidate for the degree of Masters in Social Work at Salem State University’s School of Social Work. She holds a B.S.W. in Social Work from Salem State University. She hopes to do group therapy with children and families with her career.  Ms. Yarid can be reached at r_yarid@salemstate.edu or at @disabilitysw on Twitter.

How reflecting on my choice to do prenatal tests for fetal disabilities made me a better social worker

Ultrasound
Note for screenreader: Image of a pregnant white woman getting an ultrasound of her fetus. (Image credit to: http://www.wholisticwomenshealthcare.com/thoughts-of-a-midwife/2015/8/24/ultrasound-in-pregnancy)

By Janelle Cassola, M.S.W. Candidate

Salem State University

Recently, my professor asked me to reflect on the ways in which I have engaged in ableism as a social work student. While I could not think of a professional instance, I was able to reflect back on my personal life about a time that I did engage in ableism. Recently, I gave birth to my son, my first child, back in January of this year. Toward the beginning of my pregnancy, I believe around week 12, the obstetrician sat me down and started to discuss optional screenings that they could do that would determine whether the baby had any disabilities, such as Down Syndrome. As soon as she started explaining all the different tests, I knew I was going to choose to have at least one done. In the end, I chose one of the least invasive but more accurate tests.

Whenever someone asked why I was getting the test (as I wasn’t high risk, and am on the younger side), I would tell them I just wanted to be able to be prepared. I told them that I wanted to be able to prepare my house or to get necessary equipment or other things that might be needed by my child. However, leading up to the test I began to have dreams about getting ‘bad news’ from the doctor. I also had dreams in which my doctor told me that there was ‘something wrong’ with my baby. I started to realize that it wasn’t my house that I would have to prepare, it would have to be myself! Slowly, I came to the understanding that if I got the news that my child had a disability, I would need some time to process and accept that news. I think that I struggled with the belief that my child would have a ‘lesser life’ if they were born with a disability. In addition, I think that a part of my process would have been going through the grieving process as I would have been grieving the ‘perfect child’ that I imagine many pregnant women imagine when they first find out they are pregnant.

In my readings for my course on social work practice with people with disabilities, I learned how genetic testing connects to the medical model of disability. As my textbook discussed, the testing and the possible results were only presented to me by my medical team through a medical model lens, versus a social model of disability lens. My medical team informed me of the genetic reasoning behind any of the possible disabilities that could be discovered but did not include any information regarding what my child’s life would be like if the test was positive. As Mackelprang and Salsgiver (2015) suggested in my textbook, it would have been beneficial to hear about the lives of people living with some of the disabilities. This could have possibly calmed my nerves as well as avoided my ableist thinking. My hope is that for patients who do have a positive test, their medical team can learn to sit down with them and go into further detail about what a child’s life will and can look like. I think this could help a parent-to-be process that news in a not-so-negative way. I believe that a discussion like this could help patients understand that the only options are not abortion or a child with a ‘lesser life.’

As a social work professional, it is important to always reflect on and examine our own ableism. In our society, we have been witness to countless ableist thoughts and beliefs throughout our lives. These beliefs become the standard way of thinking and affect our interactions with people with disabilities. Therefore, it is essential for a social worker to reflect on their own ableist thoughts and practices in order to be able to change their way of thinking – and practicing! Once the social worker is able to do this work, their practice with people with disabilities has the potential to be so much more valuable.

Janelle Cassola 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 Urban Studies from Worcester State University. She hopes to continue her career in the field of adoption. Ms. Cassola chose to study social work practice with people with disabilities to become better informed of this community, the barriers that they face, and the practice frameworks regarding people with disabilities. Ms. Cassola can be reached at j_cassola2@salemstate.edu or at @disabilitysw on Twitter.