Debates about how to refer to the people social workers support through the provision of care and service referrals ebbs and flows. We have moved on from the medicalized “patient” to the more neutral “client.” Some critique the “client” moniker, and have embraced a more business-like approach in the use of the term “consumer.” Some critique that approach as well given our society’s shift into a heavily consumer-oriented culture. While we may all just want to consider talking about the “people” we work with, one thing we should all give a second thought to is the use of the term “servicing” when referring to what it is we do as social workers.
Let me give you an example from an interaction I had with a student in class. She is my best student, but when she spoke about the people she worked with, she said “I worked as an Early Head Start Home Visitor and serviced prenatal clients as well as children under 3 years old.” In and around my classrooms, I can’t seem to escape social workers in training who are “servicing” their clients, especially those in the child welfare sector. Yes, we provide services, and we are service providers, but we should not be “servicing” people.
Inanimate objects, such as automobiles are serviced, or perhaps computer networks, but not the people we work with. By referring to the people we work with as being “serviceable,” I argue that we are inhibiting their agency – or their capacity to acting or exert power. Social workers are tasked – very clearly – with working towards social justice both for and with the people they work with. This is made clear in the profession’s Code of Ethics, which encourages us to partner with the people we work with. Given this, there is no room for drive-through “servicing,” a term that is way too provider-centric.
Finally, not only is the term “servicing” disempowering, it is also disrespectful. Many social workers that support people working in the sex industry report that the term “servicing” is used to refer to the provision of sexual services to a paying client in that industry. Political correctness should not factor in here, because words do matter in building rapport with people – and in respecting them. Please consider taking the time to reflect on how it is you refer to the people you work with!
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 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 firstname.lastname@example.org. Her blog posts are published at www.disabilitysocialwork and you can Tweet her at @disabilitysw.