How an encounter in an airport uncovered my ableism, and made me a better social worker

By Ndia Olivier, M.S.W. Candidate

Salem State University

Ableism is the “belief that because persons with disabilities are not typical of the non-disabled majority, they are inferior (Mackelprang & Salsgiver, 2015 p. 105). After reading this definition, I realized that in certain situations, my ableism shows. I also realized how imperative it is to always check your ableism as a social worker.

One specific example I remember is when I was at a crowded airport waiting to board my flight. An older woman who was in a wheelchair was in the aisle right next to me. Without even thinking, I asked her if she wanted my seat. My offer came from a place of being taught to always be nice to your elders and give up your seat to them – but also because she was in a wheelchair, I assumed she wanted to be more comfortable. Her response was very nice, “No thanks sweetie, I have this old thing,” she said, referring to her wheelchair. She could see on my face how embarrassed I was, and told me that she was not offended by what I had said. Instead, she took it as an opportunity to educate me. She told me to try to be more aware and not assume the needs of people in wheelchairs.

What I did may be categorized as compartmentalization, or the “stereotyping of persons with disabilities or placing them in predetermined categories  (Mackelprang & Salsgiver, 2015 p. 113). Looking back, I pitied the older woman, and automatically assumed she would be more comfortable sitting in a chair like ‘the rest of us.’ Without realizing it, I could have made this woman feel powerless as if she was incapable of making her own decisions regarding her comfortability level. I wanted to normalize her experience as it pertained to me, but quickly learned that she was in a normalized state that pertained to her.

This experience helped me to learn about my ableism and why it is important to consider one’s own ableism in order to be a better social work practitioner. Though we live in an ableist society that perpetuates ableism, it is up to us to challenge those social norms. We need to slow down when encountering people and we need to see people as people first. It is easy to be used to societal norms, but the concept of normalcy is a social construct that is forever changing. As a social worker, we have to be able to enter every encounter with a mind free of assumptions. I believe we should always ask questions first instead of letting our ableism dictate what we think is the right thing for others.

Ndia Oliver 2
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 who is smiling)

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. Ms. Olivier can also be reached via social media at @disabilitysw on Twitter.

How my part-time job helped me to confront my own ableism

Root beer in a mug
Note for screen reader: A frothy mug of delicious root beer, image from http://www.cottoncravings.com

By Sage Lucas, M.S.W. Candidate

Salem State University

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.

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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