Weighing the pros & cons of the medical & social model of disability when working with people facing medical complexities

Graduate social work students working with Dr. Elspeth Slayter were asked to reflect on the ways in which they do 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 of the model. Then, students were introduced to the social model of disability, in which society is seen as the disabling factor as opposed to 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 would engage in medical model-informed practice and social model-informed practice with that client.”

By Erica Sarro, MSW Candidate

Salem State University

“Sarah” was a five year old girl that was referred to my agency by the school system. Her treatment goals included providing resource allocation and engaging in parental education, as well as supporting Sarah with behavior management assistance. Sarah had a diagnosis of intellectual disability as well as a rare genetic condition, which required the assistance of a walker for mobility and a feeding tube.  Sarah was also non-verbal and required assistance with improving her receptive language capacity.

If I took a medical model approach to this case, which is defined as; “the belief that with the correct intervention all human abnormalities could be corrected,” I would focus on encouraging medical interventions (Mackelprang & Salsgiver, 2015; p 103). This would include helping Sarah and her family connect with surgeons and genetic doctors, who might be searching for a cure for her condition.  Additionally, I would also have worked with the occupational and physical therapists in both community and school settings, with the goal of helping Sarah to walk like a “normal person”, instead of needing a walker or other device.

While practicing under the social model, I would focus on helping the family and school make the environment a more welcoming and accessible place. For example, I would encourage both the school and the family not to focus on interventions with the goal of curing Sarah’s disabilities.  Instead, I would educate the family on the rights of a student with disabilities, coordinate with the school to ensure that the correct services were in place so that the medical needs did not overshadow or define Sarah’s school experience.  I believe that even though Sarah’s medical issues, (such as the feeding tube) do need to be addressed, that Sarah is more than her impairments and that the school and family should accommodate her needs in order for her to feel successful and equal.

The social model of disability is important when viewing Sarah’s’ ability to interact with her environment.  With respect to the social model, Shakespeare states that “the problems disabled people face are the result of social oppression and exclusion, not their individual deficits.  This places the moral responsibility on society to remove the burdens which have been imposed and enable disabled people to participate. (Mackelprang & Salsgiver, 2015).  As a social work provider, it is my ethical responsibility to advocate for social justice for people with disabilities, including Sarah.  Especially important for Sarah’s well-being would be making her home a clutter-free environment, so that she could access all of the rooms in her home.  With respect to her school environment, ensuring that Sarah’s classes were accessible and just as equal in opportunities as all classrooms should be.

I would argue, however, that the social model approach is not the perfect model nor is the medical model.  As a social worker, I would realize that the social model is not realistic for all aspects of Sarah’s life.  Sarah is going to struggle with frustration, and making her life barrier free is not going to be possible all the time.  Sarah’s family has to balance her medical and physical needs along with her emotional and communication needs equally.  Some medical intervention is needed and any improvement with eating or walking should be celebrated along with her ability to access her environment and society in the least restrictive way possible.  Being knowledgeable in both models will not only enhance the quality of integrative care for people with disabilities, but also the assurance of continued cultural competency in the social work profession.

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.

Why social workers should learn about disability culture

By Sage Lucas, MSW Candidate

Salem State University

Understanding disability culture is one of the most important things you can do as a social worker. Judith Heumann, noted disability civil rights advocate, talks about the importance of accessibility in everyday life, as well as people’s attitudes towards the disability culture and community. You can see these comments on this YouTube video. Ms. Heumann goes over the fact that one of the most limiting parts of improving disability culture is working on what other non-disabled people think (Heumann, 2012).

I think that Ms. Heumann’s comments ring true for working in the social work profession as well. I say this because when one has a certain view about a group of people or a program, it can determine whether one has an overall positive or negative view of a person with a disability. Also, our own views can help skew other people’s views as well, so we should be aware of this.

Another reason why it is so important to have an understanding of disability culture as a social work practitioner is so that we may advocate for and with our clients who are persons with disabilities. According to Duprè (2012), “disability activists and theorists have also deconstructed the way that disabled people have been depicted in history, literature, art and in the entertainment industry. In doing so they not only bring existing normative sub-texts to light but write alternative perspectives which incorporate the lived experiences of disabled people as active agents in culture, rather than passive and dependent receivers of cultural messages and meanings (Duprè, 2012, p. 178).” This point has huge relevance for advocating for how others see our social work clients.

I would also like to recommend a disability culture-related resource to social workers practicing with people with disabilities. This resource is Emotions Anonymous (EA),. Emotions Anonymous was created in the 1970’s and is similar to groups such as Alcoholics or Narcotics Anonymous, but instead of focusing on substance use disorders, they focus on feelings and emotions. According to the EA website, ” …members come together in weekly meetings for the purpose of working toward recovery from any sort of emotional difficulties. EA members are of diverse ages, races, economic statuses, social and educational backgrounds. The only requirement for membership is a desire to become well emotionally” (EA, 2017). EA provides members with a support system as well as a day-to-day programs to attend in order to help cope with strong emotions. Mostly, however, EA helps members find that they are not alone in their struggle. This resource can help me to support my work around cultural competence with people with mental health disorders as this group opens new doors to understanding emotions in a different way than I have in the past. Many members from the partial hospitalization program I work in have similar difficulties in processing emotions.

As my clients have voiced that they are afraid no one else understands what they are going through, this resource is a great 12-step program for understanding how to cope with strong emotions. This resource is also helpful to me as a social worker in my efforts to be culturally responsive , as while I learn about the program, I can better understand the difficulties some clients may go through with coping with their emotions. Learning more about EA will also help me to develop my skills in cultural humility as most of the time I think it is very easy for me to share my emotions so when I hear that someone is having a hard time sharing their emotions I think that it can be silly and maybe all they need to do is share. This resource can help me understand that it is not always that easy to share emotions and some people need extra support.

In summary, I feel that by taking the time to learn more about disability culture-specific resources, I may be able to be a better social worker for my clients with disabilities.

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

Social work practice with a child with ADHD: Applying the medical and social models of disability

Graduate social work students working with Dr. Elspeth Slayter were asked to reflect on the ways in which they do 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 of the model. Then, students were introduced to the social model of disability, in which society is seen as the disabling factor as opposed to 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 would engage in medical model-informed practice and social model-informed practice with that client.”

By Erica Chepulis, MSW Candidate

Salem State University

For my consideration of the medical and social models of disability as they relate to social work practice, I will describe a summer camp member who I worked with last summer, who I will call Nicholas. Nicholas is a 9-year-old boy who is diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). For Nicholas, his ADHD manifests as having a short attention span during activities, great fluctuations in emotions, and heightened sensitivity to loud noises or crowds.

The medical model views disabilities as “biological dysfunction[s]” and suggests that service professionals utilize interventions to try to “fix” the disability (Mackelprang & Salsgiver, 2015, p.103). In contrast, the social model views disability as a result of the social and physical world that isolates and is not built to accommodate people with disabilities (Shakespeare, 2013). While there are many criticisms of the medical model due to its deficit-based perspective of people with disabilities, there are also criticisms of the social model. Weaknesses of the social model include its simplicity and its establishment by mainly white, heterosexual men with physical disabilities and spinal cord injuries, a group whose perspectives are not representative of collective population of people with disabilities (Shakespeare, 2013). Criticisms of the social model also include its lack of acknowledgement that disability can be an important part of people’s lives and identities, its definition of disability as inherent oppression, and its ideal vision of a barrier-free world which does not consider natural environmental barriers (Shakespeare, 2013).

The social model would be helpful in working with Nicholas by allowing me to understand that the routine and activities of our summer camp were designed with a bias toward non-disabled children. The social model would suggest that I adjust Nicholas’s schedule as well as plan more inclusive activities that would be safer for him and give him equal opportunity to succeed.

While the social model is more strengths-based and does not ask that Nicholas change something about himself, the medical model may be more helpful in a few ways. The social model suggests that the ideal world is one in which people with disabilities do not experience barriers in their daily lives; however, this model does not take into account non-human constructed barriers (Shakespeare, 2013). For instance, Nicholas has difficulty with sensory processing, so loud noises such as thunderstorms are stressful and upsetting to him. We were able to follow the social model and accommodate Nicholas by providing him with warning when we knew there would be loud sounds, making sure there was an exit nearby and a designated room he could sit in if the noises were overwhelming, and creating a safety plan regarding who would accompany him and what activities could be done to help him feel calm. However, the noise could still be bothersome to Nicholas and impact his functioning regardless of our plans. In this case, the medical model may be helpful in providing interventions that can be used to help him through this environmental barrier. If I were Nicholas’s clinician, I might suggest listening therapy or psychotherapy to help him in ways that he could not otherwise be accommodated by the physical and social world around him. The social model is certainly more strengths-based, but it may be helpful to supplement it with the medical model to ensure that all of the client’s needs are met.

Mackelprang, R.W. & Salsgiver, R.O. (2015). Disability: A diversity model approach in human service practice (3rd ed.). Chicago, IL: 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 Chepulis 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 Wheelock College. She hopes to continue her career in working with youth in programs that support their educational, social, and emotional growth and encourage them to reach their full potential. Ms. Chepulis chose to study social work practice with people with disabilities to learn how to most effectively and respectfully advocate for youth with disabilities and their families. Ms. Chepulis can be reached at e_chepulis@salemstate.edu.

 

How the medical and social models of disability play out in adoption social work

social vs. medical model
Image from Bluestockings Magazine (For screenreader: Image shows a cartoon that explains the difference between the medical and social models of disability. Specifically, it shows a person in a wheelchair at the bottom of the steps.  On the right is a caption saying “they should build a ramp” and on the left is a caption saying that the “impairment is the problem”)

Graduate social work students in Dr. Elspeth Slayter’s course on social work practice with people with disabilities were asked to reflect on the ways in which they do 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 of the model. Then, students were introduced to the social model of disability, in which society is seen as the disabling factor as opposed to 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 would engage in medical model-informed practice and social model-informed practice with that client.”

By Janelle Cassola, MSW Candidate

Salem State University

For my consideration of how the medical and social models of disability play out in my social work practice, I will explore the scenario of a child with a disability, “Sara,” who is receiving services through my current field placement at an adoption agency.  Although the scenario is not a true situation, it is plausible.

Sara is a two-year old girl who was born with a unilateral cleft lip and a cleft palate due to her mother’s substance use during pregnancy.  Sara’s cleft lip was corrected at the age of 3 months and her palate was corrected at the age of 7 months.  The surgeries went well but they were unable to repair the full cleft lip so Sara still has a slight cleft.  Sara was removed from her mother at birth due to a positive toxicology screen at birth.  She was placed in foster care and has remained in care of child welfare services since then.  During this time, Sara’s mother was unable to consistently follow the goals on her family reunification service plan. Eventually, the child welfare authority changed Sara’s goal from permanency through family reunification to permanency through adoption.

Since Sara was born, she has had multiple ear infections that have affected her hearing.  Her first foster home placement did not attend to these ear infections in a timely manner, which had a great effect on Sara’s hearing.  As a result, she has been diagnosed slight hearing loss. Sara also has been diagnosed with a speech delay due to the combination of her hearing loss and cleft palate.  She receives therapeutic services through a speech-language pathologist and an audiologist in addition to her ear, nose, and throat doctor.

Now that Sara’s goal has been changed to adoption, her social worker has started recruiting for an adoptive family for Sara.  Her social worker could approach her recruitment of families and the information she gives them through medical model-informed practice or social model-informed practice. I will play out each scenario below.  If, as Sara’s social worker, I decided to provide information to the prospective family through medical model-informed practice I would focus on the interventions that are currently in place in order to help “heal” Sara.  According the Mackelprang and Salsgiver (2015) the medical model believes that specialists such as speech and occupational therapists are those who should control how people with disabilities are seen.  Therefore, when speaking with the potential adoptive family about Sara, I would inform them about her impairments, and would share that she has multiple different specialists who are working towards making her “normal”. By doing so, it would be the hope of a medical model believer that the family would be more willing to take Sara into their home if they knew she had a chance of “losing” her disability.

On the other hand, as a social worker looking to recruit a home for Sara through social model-informed practice, the focus would be different.  I would still inform the family of Sara’s supports and the specialists that she is currently seeing.  However, since the social model asserts that society is the disabling factor, I would introduce their services as optional (Shakespeare, 2013).  I would focus more on what the family would have to do in order to change their social environment so that Sara would be supported.  This would mean speaking with extending family members and friends and discussing how their views on a person with impairments is really what is disabling to Sara.  Unfortunately, if a child’s medical needs were presented to a family in that way and the family chose to discontinue her services, it could hinder Sara’s development.  Shakespeare (2013) acknowledges this weakness of the social mode in his article “The Social Model of Disability.”

In summary, I would most likely take a mixed approach when working with Sara and her potential adoptive families, drawing on the best of each model.

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.

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.

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 ndia.olivier@gmail.com.

“Letting” people who are non-verbal communicate in their own way: A challenge for social work practice

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 Kasey Soucy, MSW Candidate
Salem State University

While working at a disability group home agency, I came to know“ Jane,” a person with Rett Syndrome. Jane was non-verbal and was unable to walk independently. She used a specialized walker to move around. In addition, she developed her own sign language in order to communicate. During the day, Jane would attend a day program. That program gave all nonverbal clients computers that had the “Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS)” system on it. Jane was required to use it at the day program and was also encouraged to continue using it at the group home. Jane would take home the computer, but she would leave it in her bedroom. She did this because she didn’t like it, and was comfortable with her own form of communication. The day program became insistent on Jane using the computer at home, so the director asked Jane to use it. Jane refused to use the computer and threw it across the room because she was so upset about being asked to do so. The day program still required Jane to use the computer so she would comply, however once she was in her home she didn’t use it and the staff did not force her to do so.

As a social worker, and using what I know now from this course, I would first ask whether Jane wanted to use the PECS system. When disability studies scholar Tom Shakespeare was discussing the social model of disability, he pointed out the idea of this practice is to make society adapt to people with disabilities. This could include allowing for people’s own communication choice to be honored or it could include providing accommodations like the PECS system for non-verbal clients. One of the barriers of the social model (Shakespeare, 2006, p. 219) is trying to make accommodations for people with disabilities without choice. The PECS system might work well for one client who is non-verbal, but it did not suit Jane and she did not want to use it. Shakespeare described limitations with the social model-informed practice as assuming there could be a “utopia” for people with disabilities as there would be no barriers. People with disabilities do not all function or adapt the same way so it is unrealistic to be able to accommodate everyone and it is insulting to force accommodations on people with disabilities if they do not want to utilize that specific accommodation. If Jane was given the option to use or not use the PECS system then that would still be utilizing the social model-informed practice because society is making the change for her and not expecting her to change. By forcing the PECS system on Jane, it is reverting back to the medical model practice because the program is making Jane adjust instead of learning Jane’s sign language.

Jane also used a specialized walker. I would engage in medical model-informed practice by acknowledging it was Jane’s body part that was impaired, and therefore disabled her. This is another limit of the social model-informed practice. As Shakespeare (2006, p. 218), the social model-informed practice is so focused on society being the barrier that it does not always acknowledge that a person’s body can also be the barrier. The medical model-informed practice is what helped Jane receive the specialized walker because Jane’s body was the barrier and she wanted to walk as independently as she could. The social model-informed practice can also be used by ensuring there are ramps for Jane so she can have easy accessibility.

From the macro level of social work, I believe we are on the right track with the social-model informed practice, however as Shakespeare (2006) pointed out on page 220, this model is not complex enough to include everyone. Intersectionality does not seem to be taken in to consideration with this model, which is a complicating factor. A strong model needs to be developed to acknowledge the complexities of people and their disabilities. A person’s environment, gender, race and other social identities need to be considered when developing models (which was not the case since the group of activists who rallied for this model were white heterosexual men (Shakespeare, 2006, p. 217)). The first step to be taken by every social worker should be to ask the person with the disability “what can be done to support you?” or “what do you believe needs to be changed so you do not continue to feel oppressed or feel like your voice is not being heard?”

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

Kasey A Soucy
This is Kasey A Soucy, an MSW candidate at Salem State University’s School of Social Work. (Note for Screenreaders: 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.