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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org. This author’s blog posts are published at http://www.disabilitysocialwork.blog.