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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org
I was moved by these readings. I am also appreciative for the insights and raw honesty of the people who shared their experiences. It is sad that our society has operated from both the medical and moral models of disability, and as such has fallen victim to assumptions about people with disabilities and their experience with sex, love and intimacy. Even though this is not a topic I have given much thought to before, I am afraid that I, too, may have been very ill-informed regarding the experiences of people with disabilities before engaging with these readings.
The theme that I found throughout these readings was that there are two different sets of challenges that people with disabilities may face when it comes to dating and intimate relationships. First, one set of challenges involves the specifics of people’s disabilities, and finding creative ways to overcome them within a relationship. Second, the other challenges appear to be centered around societal views that create barriers to people with disabilities even forming intimate relationships. These barriers can manifest in different ways, whether that be as a result of a lack of respect for self-determination within a residential setting or assumptions on the part of a potential partner when they find out the person they are talking to has a disability, perhaps ending the relationship before it starts. The latter set of challenges are that which social workers should be paying attention to addressing in our work. The more we educate ourselves and others about the presence of ableism, and work to shift the perception of people with disabilities as not interested in or capable of physical intimacy, the first type of challenge become quite manageable.
A common thread through all of this seems to be fear. In his article on the dignity of risk concept, Craig Parson states, “one of the biggest barriers is fear: fear of the unknown; fear of legal ramifications and fear of failure” (Parson, 2008, p. 28). We see this barrier manifest itself within individuals, institutions and the larger society. Unfortunately, this may be the driving force behind laws, regulations, policies and policy implementation that end up creating damage to people. When operating from a place of fear, social workers may deny people opportunities to fail and try something all should have access to. Perhaps social workers neglect to honor people’s rights in the hopes of avoiding a negative situation. This approach can prove to be ineffective in so many ways. In this regard, Ann Thomas has a powerful message in sharing her own story, “but all it takes to remove that fear is self awareness and a conversation with the person who is different” (Thomas, 2015, p. 1). Although this statement sounds so simple, there is so much truth to it. If social workers were to take on this attitude of curiosity and openness, some of these barriers could start to fall away for the people with disabilities that we work with.
Parsons, C. (2008). The dignity of risk: Challenges in moving on. Australian Nursing Journal, 15(9), 28.
Thomas, A. (2015). Dating in a wheelchair: Your problem, not mine. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://nytlive.nytimes.com/womenintheworld/2015/04/08/dating-in-a-wheelchair-your-problem-not-mine/ (Links to an external site.)
Maria Scippa 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 from Salem State University. She hopes to continue her career in social work, working with children and families. Ms. Scippa chose to study social work practice with people with disabilities because this knowledge will help her in providing well informed, competent services to families that have a person with a disability. Ms. Scippa can be reached at email@example.com.
That overweight and obesity among adults with intellectual disabilities are matters of great concern is not up for debate. Information about the prevalence of both obesity and overweight (and related factors) are well documented in the literature (Spanos, Melville, and Hankey, 2013; Stancliffe, Lakin, Larson, Engler, Bershadsky, Taub, and Tichá, 2011). However, what has really caught my attention as of late are data suggesting a relationship between type of living arrangement and both overweight and obesity (Tichá, Hewitt, Nord and Larson 2013). Specifically, it appears that the more ‘independent’ a person’s living arrangements are, the more chance there is of becoming overweight or obese. As the sibling of a fairly independent community-based person with an intellectual disability, I am not surprised to read this finding. With my sister’s independence comes the dance of balancing choice and health – a dance I sometimes think I am more interested in than she is given our regular conversations about Twinkies – and treadmills.
While our conversations are ostensibly about a popular “snack cake” and exercise equipment, they are actually an exercise in what can be called “choice management” – or – what I often fear is my lackluster implementation of support for self-determination. I, as many siblings likely do, work hard to take supporting vs. instructing roles in my sibling’s life. This is never more challenging for me than in the face of my sister’s health status realities. I would wager that siblings, parents, residential staff and individuals with intellectual disabilities alike experience this micro challenge in the practice of honoring self-determination. Therefore, the goal of this essay is to use one sibling’s perspective to relate findings about independent living, obesity and overweight back to the more theoretical realm in which we consider a guiding principle in this field – the “dignity of risk” concept coined by Perske (1972). In this essay, I will provide an example of a “choice management” quandary, review a best-case scenario resolution and make recommendations for how to move forward as a field on this matter.
Let me start with an example of a “choice management” quandary. My adult sibling is actively battling her weight. Extra small in stature, the pounds don’t have many options for spreading out across her tiny frame. As the pounds add on, she strains to walk up the three steps into my apartment. At night, I can easily hear her labored breath in the guest bedroom. These moments are tough to for me to take. She is well aware of her “weight problem,” as she puts it. Each week brings her proud report of hours spent on her treadmill in her residence, “at least 45 minutes per day,” she tells me. The glow on her face at this admission permeates the telephone line, and I can feel her happiness. Of course, I reassure her that this is “fantastic” and say things along the lines of “I wish I could say the same for me, I’m so proud of you!”
Despite this self-directed success, I know that no matter how much my sibling walks on the treadmill, her absolutely necessary use of atypical antipsychotic medicines will not hinder the regression of her significant girth. I’m not even sure that that exercise will assist her in her cardiovascular health – so much of the damage appears to me to be done. But the fact is, my sibling’s weight problem ventures beyond medication side effects, my sister is downright hungry. Hungry for the food she wants, when she wants it – and as much of it as she can get. “I love this food,” she said the other day, on her third slice of birthday cake. While some of her hunger is likely driven by medication side effects, my sibling has also made it clear that overconsumption of “her favorites” is also a choice. This, in turn, likely relates to her challenges in connecting current actions with future outcomes. And it is in this realm that our field’s efforts at health prevention, health literacy and fitness clash with staffing realities – and the implementation of human rights around the dignity of risk and self-determination concepts. In our family’s life, this realization all came to a crashing head when it came to one topic: her choice of Twinkies, the popular “snack cake,” for breakfast.
It all started three years ago when I became the “point person” for my sister’s home visits as our father was nearing the end of his life. There we were, siblings, in the supermarket one day. Our mother was dead – our father was terminally ill and I was in loco parentis. We were in the junk food aisle at Stop n’ Shop. I was not happy about this. The fruit aisle had been a total bust, as had been the cereal aisle. With her hand hovering over a package of Twinkies, she turned to me with a dark look. Those pushing their shopping carts by us in the cramped supermarket aisle scurried away, sensing an argument in the air. People generally don’t take kindly to those who look different, in this case those with an intellectual disability such as my sister. And nobody likes a family argument in public.
As an adamant professional advocate for the right to self-determination for people with intellectual disabilities, there I was, struggling with my sister’s food of choice for breakfast. In my head, I calculated the location of my line in the sand vis-à-vis the distance to a full-blown tantrum from my sister. I chose the fruit route – and made a plea for cantaloupe. “But I do not want cantaloupe, I want Twinkies!” she declared in an overly-loud voice, her pointer finger standing straight up, “they taste good with milk in my tea.” My counter argument came out as my arm angled to my hip. “But, Twinkies,” I stammered, “that’s – that’s just not breakfast food!”
Glowering at each other, neither of us were likely surprised by her strident response. “It’s my ‘human right’ and you can’t stop me,” her back stiffening. I recalled that my sister was a regular attendee at her group home’s human rights training sessions. The concept of human rights in day-to-day life choices is a central goal for all community-based people with intellectual disabilities who live in government-supported settings. In describing her activities at such meetings, my sister acts out the role-playing she engages in. Generally, this involves standing up for one’s rights in decision-making at all levels – from self-defense and job choice to food choice. “On the one hand,” I thought, “this human rights training is totally right on, but on the other hand, how could they let a person with pre-diabetes eat Twinkies, of all things, for breakfast?”
Agitated, my voice now met my sister’s in decibel. “It’s my house, and my wallet, and we don’t eat Twinkies for breakfast at my house!” I stammered, attempting to impersonate a parent. The parental tone did nothing to further our détente. Her voice even louder now, my sister became more adamant “They let me eat it at my house. I went to my human rights advocate. I eat one for breakfast with tea with milk. It is what I eat for breakfast. I want it for breakfast.” This seemingly simple incident in the grocery store is actually about the foundation of modern disability policy writ small and large – the implementation of the “dignity of risk” concept Coined during the de-institutionalization era by disability studies scholar Robert Perske, this term was first used to challenge disability system workers about:
“…going overboard in their effort to protect, comfort, keep safe, take care and watch…this overprotection can…consequently prevent the retarded [sic] individual from experiencing risk that is essential for normal growth and development.” (Perske, 1972: 24)
But here’s the question – where is the line in the sand? By reflecting on the potential gain from experiencing day-to-day risk, Perske championed the need for people with intellectual disabilities to be able to take such chances as well. While I am doubtful that Perske thought much about Twinkies for breakfast, he did comment on the need for the acquisition of ‘prudent’ risk taking in order to avoid what could be a ‘crippling safety.’
Perske’s commentary has informed the disability service community to think deeply about how to best support people with intellectual disabilities living and working in the community. And yet, I wonder, have families and residential staff really had the conversations we need to have about the nitty gritty of the implementation of the dignity of risk – say – when it comes to Twinkies? Of course, the situation my sister and I face is fraught with the not-sibling, not-parent confusion we navigate, but this is likely parallel to staff-consumer relations as well.
Back in the supermarket, I thought “Well, here I am, on the front line of implementing this important principle – as it relates to Twinkies for breakfast.” “Somehow,” the cynical sister in me thought, “we’ve taken a wrong turn on this human rights stuff.” The disability civil rights professional shuddered in horror. Taking a deep breath – and a new tack – I posed this question to my sister. “OK, I understand and agree that it is your right to choose Twinkies, but will you at least also have some fruit, and think about how Twinkies impact those sugar levels the doctor warned you about last week, you know, because of how you’ve been feeling sick sometimes?”
As her pseudo parent-figure, I felt compelled to lecture, and yet I also felt like a hypocrite, failing in my chance to effectively implement of the dignity of risk. Met with a studied and confident silence, my sister turned away from me as she defiantly placed three packages of Twinkies in the shopping cart. So, as many parents have likely done, I bought the Twinkies in order to avoid a scene in the grocery store. And, needless to say, my sister had her Twinkies for breakfast the next morning, with milky tea.
While Amelia has since moved on from Twinkies to Count Chocula’s best, we do continue our discussion of her “sugar problem” and the importance of healthy choices, but the process is slow. I find I am often stumped about how to support my adult sister on making her own prudent choices, as I believe a balance must be struck between supporting the ‘dignity of risk’ with the need to support a person’s health ‘security.’ Or, maybe that’s just an overprotective sister talking. While many sisters may have such debates – when the power differential is so extreme the dynamics shift radically. So, when I find myself struggling with Amelia over such issues as Twinkies, I have taken to looking back to Perske to guide me. Recently, in looking over his seminal writing on the topic, Perske addressed overprotection in a way that challenges the reader to look deeply within:
“Overprotection can keep people from becoming all they could become. Many of our best achievements came the hard way: We took risks, fell flat, suffered, picked ourselves up, and tried again. Sometimes we made it and sometimes we did not. Even so, we were given the chance to try.” (Perske, 1972:24)
Drawing on my memory of this passage in my toughest moments with my sister, I am more able to step outside of myself. It has taken me too long to realize that much of the learning that needs to be done is learning on my end – not my sister’s. While my health-focused conversations with her go on, I have learned to back off and respect my sister in ways I never thought I could. And in turn, my sister has, on occasion, surprised me in asking for cantaloupe at breakfast. Despite this success, I fear that my influence has changed my sister’s self-determined narratives as they relate to weight. In addition to her self-directed weekly treadmill utilization reports, my sibling tells me a lot about her Friday lunchtime diet – the day she is allowed to choose her meal from a takeout menu at work. Last week she told me “I ate a salad instead of a meatball sub.” The sister in me felt happy yet conflicted, was she parroting my agenda? ethicist in me reminded her to eat what she thought tasted good – but to remember to get some protein as well. I will take this happy medium as a best-case scenario.
It is my hope that this scenario –and the resolution our family found ring a bell for other families – as well as front-line residential managers and staff. After years of observing high turnover, stretched staffing and significant use of relief staff with limited training, our field needs to step back and ask ourselves about how we are implementing the dignity of risk as it relates to obesity and overweight. Do our systems allow us to take the time or space to step outside of our roles in order to ask ourselves about how well we might be doing in the dance of self determination and choice management? How do our training and supervision teams approach such topics – or do they? Is it easier to substitute judgment than to have a difficult conversation with someone who is, say, hell bent on Twinkies for breakfast?
Perhaps the answer starts with looking more deeply at how people with intellectual disabilities think about and experience food, weight, health and choice. In their volume on the ethnography of obesity and overeating, McCullough and Hardin (2013) point out that we really don’t know enough about why people overeat. These anthropologist reference ‘cultures of eating’ – leading me to think our field should consider both how staff, administrators, families and individuals conceptualize the culture of eating for people living in community-based settings with respect to choice management. Moving beyond standard phrases from obesity prevention and health promotion efforts – let us ask ourselves how do individuals with intellectual disabilities conceptualize obesity and overweight and how should this drive our day-to-day actions?
I’m not throwing out the Twinkies in the cupboard just yet.
Anderson, L. L., Humphries, K., McDermott, S., Marks, B., Sisirak, J., & Larson, S. (2013). The state of the science of health and wellness for adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities, 51(5), 385-98. Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com/docview/1491201301?accountid=13661
McCullough, M. and Hardin, J., editors (2013). Reconstructing Obesity: The Meaning of Measures and the Measure of Meanings. Berghahn Publishers: New York.
Perske, R. 1972. “The dignity of risk and the mentally retarded.” Mental Retardation 10:24-27
Spanos, D., Melville, C. A., & Hankey, C. R. (2013). Weight management interventions In adults with intellectual disabilities and obesity: A systematic review of the evidence. Nutrition Journal, 12, 132. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1186/1475-2891-12-132
Stancliffe, R. J., Lakin, K. C., Larson, S., Engler, J., Bershadsky, J., Taub, S., . . . Ticha, R. (2011). Overweight and obesity among adults with intellectual disabilities who use intellectual Disability/Developmental disability services in 20 U.S. states. American Journal on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities, 116(6), 401-18. Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com/docview/929150701?accountid=13661
Graduate social work students 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 Daniel Fraser, MSW Candidate
Salem State University
Where I work at a group home for people with intellectual disabilities, we have a client, who for the purposes of this discussion, will be referred to as H.I. Several years ago, H.I. began to feel uncomfortable standing or walking on her own, or with a walker. She feared she will fall and hurt herself. A wheelchair was provided for her, as a way to make her feel more comfortable with her mobility. However, staff were encouraged to get H.I. to stand up and walk with assistance of a walker, instead of allowing her to remain in the wheelchair on a full-time basis. Each time a staff member would attempt to encourage her to stand up and walk with assistance of a walker, H.I. would become upset, and refuse to attempt to stand up. It is noteworthy that H.I. is able to transfer herself from her wheelchair to other locations, such as a recliner, her bed, or even the toilet, but that is the extent to which she feels comfortable enough to stand on her own.
When I first started working at the home, the director tried to implement a plan where H.I. was supposed to transfer herself from the toilet seat to the shower seat, each time she went to take a shower (she needs full assistance in taking a shower). Each time staff went to implement this protocol, it caused a great deal of stress for H.I., and she would refuse to take a shower.
Taking the social model approach, it would have been better for all of the staff members, the director included, to talk to H.I., and find out whether she would rather use her wheelchair to get around, or if she would rather try walking with the walker. By doing this, we would effectively eliminate the barrier of using a walker or walking on her own, that separates H.I. from the mobility which she chooses (Shakespeare, 2006). Allowing H.I. to choose the way that she would prefer to move around would also give her more of a sense of independence, and make her feel the power of being able to make her own decisions. Discussing her option of mobility would also likely take away any behavioral consequences that resulted from staff trying to implement the protocol of having her stand up and walk when she does not feel comfortable doing so.
By taking the approach that was implemented by the director, we were taking part in medical model thinking. I believe that according to disability studies writer Tom Shakespeare, by not giving H.I. the choice of using the wheelchair to move around, and also by trying to get her to walk from the toilet seat to the shower seat, we were in essence, trying to eliminate an aspect of her disability, in order to fit in with what we wanted for her instead (2006). By taking this approach, we also encouraged the behavioral consequence that resulted, along with adding more stress to an already stressful situation for H.I.
It is argued that one of the main limitations of the social model is that it essentially further disables someone who is already disabled, by not properly identifying the disability (Shakespeare, 2006). By doing this, we are taking away part of the person’s identity, and more or less telling the person that even though they may have a disability, they should not recognize that disability. In the case of H.I., if we do not encourage her to at least attempt to stand up and walk on her own, or with the assistance of the walker, it could lead to much less leg functioning, which could further impair her functioning. So essentially, by not encouraging H.I. to move around without the assistance of a walker, and just continue to use the wheelchair, we could potentially be further disabling her.
It is a complicated situation, but it helps to look at H.I.’s situation through several lenses!
Shakespeare, T. (2013). The social model of disability. In Ed., Davis, L. (2013). The Disability Studies Reader, Fourth Edition. New York: Routledge.
Daniel Fraser is a candidate for the degree of Masters in Social Work at Salem State University’s School of Social Work. He holds a B.A. in Social Work from Salem State University. He hopes to do clinical work with students who have varying degrees of cognitive and intellectual disabilities with his career. Mr. Fraser has always enjoyed helping people out, and since joining his current place of employment, has really found his niche, where he can help people, and advocate for independence within the disability community. Mr. Fraser can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.