How wearing high heels during my commute helped me to be a better social worker

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A pair of red high-heeled shoes sitting on a white surface

Ableism is “the belief that because persons with disabilities are not typical of the non-disabled majority, they are inferior” (Mackelprang and Salsgiver, p. 105). Upon reflection, I have engaged in ableism against people with physical disabilities while on public transportation. Typically, I take public transportation during the peak hours of commuting to work between 7 a.m. and 9 a.m. and leaving work between 4p.m. and 6p.m. There are signs on the bus indicating that when a person with a disability enters the bus they are to be given seats in the front. Typically, people with wheelchairs or motorized chairs, walkers, canes and women with baby strollers occupy those seats; however when the bus is crowded during those peak times there is somewhat of a ‘all bets are off approach’ to seating and people tend to disregard those signs.

My example of demonstrating ableism involves a woman with a motorized chair who entered the bus one day. When she boarded the bus, everyone sitting in the front had to move towards the back to make space for her to enter and turn her chair towards the front. On this particular day, I had had a very bad interaction with a client at work. Mentally, I was not in a good state of mind as a result. I also had on heels which made my feet hurt from standing. Seats on either the left or the right could be used for a person with a disability, however the woman entered the bus and immediately looked towards the right where I was sitting. I knew this meant that I, along with another woman, should stand up and make room for her. The bus was very crowded and therefore moving towards the back felt like a nearly impossible task in order to make space for the woman in the motorized chair.

Without realizing it at the time, I was perpetuating a system of oppression onto the woman with a disability. Tom Shakespeare (2013) writes that the “social model (of disability) demonstrates that the problems disabled people face are the result of social oppression and exclusion, not their individual deficits”(p. 217). Looking back, I recall that I was upset that the woman with the motorized chair had turned to my side of the bus and I had had to get up. This response perpetuates a cycle of oppression because I used her disability as a source of rationalizing why she should be excluded from the bus.

Although I did not say anything verbally to the woman in the motorized chair, my face and body language gave a very descriptive picture of how angry I was that I had to move. The other women that were sitting next to me were verbal with their anger and made comments such as “she should have waited for the next bus, as there’s no space” and “why do we have to move for her?” In the moment I agreed with those women, and their outbursts. I was upset, tired, and in pain because of my heels. My only thoughts were selfish thoughts about wanting to get home so that I could get comfortable.

In retrospect, our attitudes were ableist because we were ostracizing the woman with a disability and trying to exclude her from riding the bus as everyone else was doing. I likened these feelings to feelings of the ‘survival of the fittest’; mentality that was prevalent during Darwin’s lifetime. People with disabilities were viewed as ‘undesirable’ and every effort was made to treat them as outsiders in society rather than practice inclusivity (Kevles, 1995, para. 2). At that time, people with disabilities were not viewed as fit to be amongst abled-bodied people. But back to the bus, the signs clearly acknowledged that the seats were for persons with disabilities or the elderly but due to our own selfish reasoning and justification we did not feel that that was satisfactory enough to warrant giving a seat to the woman in the motorized chair.

It is important for people to recognize their ableist nature so that when situations similar to the one discussed arise they can approach it with respect and empathy rather than disdain for the person with a disability.

Kelves, D. (1995). Essay: In the Name of Darwin. Retrieved August 14, 2017, from http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/evolution/darwin/nameof/page02.html

Mackelprang, R. & Salsgiver, R. (1999). 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.

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 disabilitysocialwork@gmail.com.

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.

Social model or medical model? How to implement one or the other in a group home setting

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 d_fraser2@salemstate.edu.