Language is power: Two things you need to know for practice with disabled people

language is power
Image from http://www.differenttruths.com

Did you know that over one fifth of the United States population has an impairment that leads to a disability? Given this, social workers are bound to engage in practice with disabled people across many service sectors – a reality which leads to the need for disability competence – and that includes competence around language choices. Whether you are working in child welfare, employee assistance programs, criminal justice or end-of-life care, you will need some guidance on how to approach your work with disabled people in a respectful manner. Here are two helpful things you need to know to be a better social worker in partnership with disabled people.

First, it is always ideal to look to your professional association for guidance. In the case of practice with the disability community, the National Association of Social Workers not only has a disability policy statement, but they also have made a major change to their Code of Ethics (CoE). The CoE is the guide post in our profession, and in setting out standards for practice, it names a series of diversity factors, including, for example, race, ethnicity and national origin. Until the most recent revision of the CoE however, disability was the only diversity factor that was not framed in a positive light.

To rectify this, the current version of the CoE replaces the term “disability” with “ability” in order to present a more strength-based framework that can counteract dominant society norms that belie the capacities of disabled people. Specifically, the CoE states that social workers should “obtain education and seek to understand the nature of social diversity and oppression” with respect to people with varying abilities. While this may be a turn off to people that embrace identity-first language (i.e. disabled people vs. people with disabilities), as a disabled person, I believe that this simple change is helpful, and does not fall into the camp of widely-rejected, outdated and offensive terms such as “differently abled,” “handicapped,” or “special needs” that are often used by well-intentioned people. Check out, for example, Lydia X. Z. Brown’s glossary of ableist phrases.

Second, it is also always a best practice to learn more about the language preferences from our clients’ cultural communities. Lately, not a day goes by on my Twitter feed when I don’t see commentary from disabled people about their preferences for either person-first language or identity-first language. Check out the #identityfirst hashtag, for example. For many years, social workers were encouraged to use person-first language as a way of showing respect, as opposed to labeling someone as “a schizophrenic,” or “autistic,” for example, both of which were felt to have negative connotations at the time. Proponents of identity-first language have reclaimed such terms by embracing their disability identity first. For example, a well-known disability rights leader prefers to be called Autistic, and another advocate prefers to be referred to as mad (signifying mental illness). For social workers new to practice with disabled people, an ideal approach could involve using approaches interchangeably until it is clear what type of language is preferred by the client in question. Remember, language is a key component to client engagement, and, therefore, language is power.

Regardless of whether you are identifying populations with varying abilities, or honoring your clients’ wishes for person-first or identity-first language, the most important thing is to see people for who they are, not for the stereotypes or assumptions that often precede them.

 

 

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.