A teacher’s response to Charlottesville for social workers in practice with people with disabilities

White nationalists from Jerusalem Post
Photo description: Segment of a large crowd of white men holding torches at a nighttime “Unite the Right” rally organized by White nationalists and Nazis on August 12, 2017. (Image from the Jerusalem Post)

I am currently teaching a course on social work practice with people with disabilities.  The course uses an intersectional lens, acknowledging the fact that people have many intersecting social identities that can result in varying types of privilege and oppression.  As such, I had to provide some venue for my students to address the Charlottesville violence and hate speech.  The following is a discussion prompt I provided for them to respond to, and I thought other social work educators might be interested in seeing this so that they could use it and/or modify it for their own courses.  Feedback welcome!

Discussion prompt: As we are part of a course on social work practice with people with disabilities in the United States of America, I would be remiss not to address the events of this past weekend in Charlottesville, Virginia. As you have already likely gathered, there are important links between the White nationalist/Nazi actions in Virginia, and the work we do as social workers with people with disabilities – who often have intersecting marginalized social identities. Many of the perspectives held by members of White nationalist/Nazi groups are clearly identifiable as racist, sexist, homophobic, anti-Semitic and even Eugenic in nature.  Therefore, as social workers practicing under our particular Code of Ethics, we need to respond. If you need some quick resources to learn more about the dynamics that led to the Charlottesville rally and violence, you can check out the “Charlottesville Syllabus” at this link.

As disability-aware social workers training to view the world with an intersectional lens, we need to acknowledge and act on what has happened in Charlottesville. That means that we need to engage in discussions – often difficult in nature – with our families, our co-workers and with our clients. Let’s start with our work with clients. One prominent disability civil rights activist, Rebecca Cokley, has noted that when terrorist incidents like this occur, people with disability count the minutes until ableist claims about the ‘crazy’ person who engaged in terrorist acts roll in. That may be an important place for you to start a conversation with a client with a disability in a week like this one. In this essay, Ms. Cokley points out another important link between disability and trauma.  She calls for the disability community (and disability service providers) to reach out to those whose disabilities came about as a result of trauma, such as the people who were injured and impaired by the car driven by the White nationalist/Nazi from Ohio. Her essay is short, easy to read and compelling and you can find it here.

It is also important to remember, however, that our work is not just direct care work. Remember, the NASW Code of Ethics states that we must fight for social justice, as it is a core value in our profession. We need to do more than discuss these difficult topics amongst ourselves, we also need to take a stand on them. I am fond of the idea that if we are not part of the solution, we are part of the problem. It is important to move beyond ideas of ourselves as “good” people, and work towards actively addressing the webs of oppression that exist in our world, little bit by little bit. Here is an example about how ADAPT, the national disability civil rights organization, has taken a stance on the events in Charlottesville. Where might you be able to stake your claim to your own stance?  Check out these ideas for 10 ways to fight hate from the Southern Poverty Law Center.

Finally, I want to leave you with a challenging set of questions. Although there are many facets to the NASW Code of Ethics, let us remember that the mission of the social work profession is rooted in a set of core values, including the idea that there is dignity and worth in every person.  How would you respond to a client with a disability who actively identified as a White nationalist/Nazi if you were to be assigned such a client today? What if she didn’t want to work with you because you were a woman of color?  What if she had been arrested for street fighting during the “Unite the Right” rally and was open about her wish to “hurt Leftists?”  Based on your training thus far in this social work program, how would you approach your work with this client?

Please leave your comments about this discussion prompt and how it might be improved or expanded upon.  All feedback is welcome.

How my part-time job helped me to confront my own ableism

Root beer in a mug
Note for screen reader: A frothy mug of delicious root beer, image from http://www.cottoncravings.com

By Sage Lucas, M.S.W. Candidate

Salem State University

I never thought that my part-time job as a waitress could possibly inform my social work practice in any way. Recently, in my disability and social work course, I was asked to consider my own ableism. After some reflection, I realized that, unfortunately, I have recently engaged in ableism at my job. While waitressing, many times during the day, a person with a disability will come in either on their own or with a family member or friend.

One time in particular, it was a busy Saturday, and a young man and his grandmother came and sat down at my table. I went up to them and said hello. When the young man began to speak to me, I couldn’t understand what he was saying. He started to point at the pictures in the menu and he was making grunting sounds. I looked towards the grandmother and blatantly asked, “Do you know what he wants?” The grandmother gave me a strange look, pointed towards her grandson and said, “He will tell you what he wants, he can do that, you know.” I looked towards the man, feeling ashamed of myself, and apologized. Then, I asked him what he would like to drink. He took out a book of pictures with words underneath each picture. He flipped through the book until it got to the page with drinks and food on it. After looking and looking for the right picture, he finally pointed to one picture in particular and looked up at me and smiled. And I said, “Would you like a root beer?” He politely nodded and smiled at me and then pointed to a picture of popcorn and signed the word for please. I said, “Ok, why don’t I get your drinks and I’ll grab you some popcorn as well.”

In reflecting on this incident, I can see that I engaged in what Mackelprang and Salsgiver (2015) called “compartmentalization.” Compartmentalization is meant to stereotype people with disabilities and to place them in a ‘predominated’ category Indeed, many times before I have seen a person with a disability enter the restaurant and if they cannot speak, the person who is with them will speak for them to make things more convenient for the wait staff. After some reflection, it should not matter how quickly the person can tell me their order, nor how they do it. Rather, they should be allowed to order in their own way and on their own. I did not take the time to see that this young man could order on his own and that he did not need the assistance of his grandmother. Mackelprang and Salsgiver (2015) comment that “pity places people with disabilities in a totally powerless position. They are not in control of their own lives. They are childlike. They are dependent…” (Mackelprang & Salsgiver, 2015, p. 113). This relates to what I have observed in myself. I saw that this young man had a disability and I stereotyped him with other persons with disabilities I had seen, when in fact he was not dependent on his grandmother, he was quite independent.  Since then, I have taken the time to stop and analyze how I talk to people and to not rush through my day without thinking about what I say, or how I am thinking about a situation. Although our society is structured in an ableist way, making us all susceptible to ableism, I do not want to behave in an ableist manner. Rather, I want to be someone who supports people with disabilities.

As a social worker it is important to understand what ableism is and how we each engage in it in our daily lives. If we want to work with people with disabilities we need to understand a person’s rights to dignity of risk, and their right to engage in self-determination. Looking back at that day with the young man who loved root beer, I can tell you all the rest of the meal was much different from how it was at the beginning. I took my time in talking to the man, and only asked the grandmother if she needed something rather than asking if her grandson needed something. After this experience of being called out by the grandmother, I feel I am more aware of how I think about disability in the restaurant and in my social work practice.

Mackelprang, R. & Salsgiver, R. (1999). Disability: A diversity model approach in human service practice, 3rd edition. New York: Lyceum Books.

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