A recent decision sanctioning a social worker for a comment on Facebook by the Health Care Professionals Council (HCPC), a United Kingdom regulatory body, sparked an international social work debate on the use of social media in the workplace. Since the decision, I have engaged in multiple conversations via social media with social workers around the globe on this very topic, and I will admit that I have often found myself in the minority arguing against the HCPC’s decision.
Despite the social worker’s comment failing to meet the test for breach of confidentiality, the majority of social workers favoring the HCPC’s decision believe that any comments related to work or a case posted on social media are grounds for termination or discipline even in the absence of identifiers.
The social worker was not disciplined for Breach of Confidentiality, but it was found that her Facebook post “could lead to a Breach of Confidentiality” despite not giving any personal information or descriptors about the client.
I am concerned the HCPC decision will set a dangerous precedent by expanding the scope of breaching confidentiality. The term “could lead to a Breach of Confidentiality” is so broad it could open up liability for social workers outside of the internet sphere.
From the HCPC’s press release on the social worker’s disciplinary action, we actually learn more about the client than we learned from the social worker’s actual comment. The HCPC press release states, “Mrs A, the mother of the children in the case, made a complaint after she searched for the social worker on Google and found the posts, which the complainant stated she was “disgusted” by.” This tells us the complaint was a married woman and biological parent of the children in question. Now, these identifiers within itself “could lead to a breach of confidentiality”.
The social worker’s comments only described that she was working on a “domestic violence case among other things”. The client assumed the social worker was referring to her case because it was a domestic violence case on the same day as the social workers check-in on Facebook. I don’t know about you, but I’ve had three to five cases go to court on the same day and all of them had a domestic violence element. In the absence of identifiers and a decision from HCPC, the client had no real evidence to prove the social worker’s comment was about her case. Sanctions and disciplinary actions in your employment should be based on evidence and not assumptions.
In retrospect, I do believe the social worker’s comments were ill-advised, but it’s not for the reasons you may think. I am definitely against and don’t recommend anyone to commingle your professional life with your personal Facebook account no matter your profession. As a matter of fact, some of the comments I see from social workers on Facebook make me afraid for the client’s they are serving. I do and must believe that social workers have the ability to separate their personal beliefs from practice, but you may not be able to “unring that bell” with clients or potential clients after review of your online persona.
The British Association of Social Workers (BASW) have provided me with one of the best social media policy guidelines to help social workers be aware of the pitfalls when using social media personally as well as using social media to obtain information on clients. However, I have yet to see any real solutions that equally address social workers safety with client centered policies. Also, it’s important for us to acknowledge that clients can’t breach confidentiality in their own case. If a client wants to publish online every document you send them, it’s their prerogative, and you should keep this in mind when providing written documents as well as having oral communications with your clients.
Google, Facebook, and Twitter are the three primary areas that cause the greatest concerns for professionals and students. Here are a few recommendations that may help you move one step closer to having some peace of mind and keeping your job out of jeopardy.
Tips for Using Facebook
Facebook is a double-edged sword. When used correctly, Facebook can expand your reach as an expert, increase traffic to your website, and allow you to provide support to others on their professional development journey. Where people get into trouble is when they try to occupy their professional and personal life in the same virtual space. This is not limited to commenting, but it also includes likes, shares, who your friends are, photos, and etc.
I recommend changing your personal Facebook page to a nickname/middle name with an avatar or baby picture for your profile and cover photos. True friends and family members will know who you are, and Facebook will automatically update your post search history with your middle, nickname, or alternate spelling. But, be careful because it’s possible for Facebook to flag your name change. You should also take precautions to enhance the security of your Facebook account.
This will help protect you when clients are actively seeking out content generated by your social media accounts. Secondly, don’t post case related items on your personal Facebook account. If you need advice or an opinion related to a case, message the Social Work Helper Fan Page. I frequently post #SWHelper Team Questions as case study questions to minimize risks to you, and I hope other social work entities will offer similar support for social workers.
If you chose to anonymize your personal Facebook account, I recommend creating a Facebook Fan Page in your professional name which can also help with establishing your professional identity.
- You can post information and resources for your clients
- You will no longer need to have embarrassing conversations with clients or coworkers about why you can’t friend them
- Clients can follow your Fan Page without exposing client’s to each other
- You can like other Fan Pages your clients may find useful while organizing resources in a central location
- FB feature allows you to seamlessly switch between your FB account and Fan Page without having to log out
- You can also make comments, like, share photos, and share posts choosing from either profile
To prevent Facebook from locking your account due to the name change, you should use a shortened or variation of your real and last name, a common name with a long search results history, your maiden name, or your middle name. These are just some of the possibilities you can choose to prevent Facebook from blocking your account. So, if you don’t want to explain to a client or an ethics committee about how your personal beliefs did not affect your decision-making due to memes and content found on your social media account, please take my advice above.
Making the Most of Twitter
Twitter is one of the best social media platforms for making connections and expanding your professional network while enhancing your ability to advocate for the causes you care about. However, there are times when you do need anonymity to protect your employment especially if actively engaging in conversations you don’t want public. Due to my personal philosophy, I don’t post comments or materials that require me to distinguish between my professional and personal identity with the exception of the occasional tweet when I am watching Scandal.
If you are using your professional name, potential networkers and possible opportunities are not going to sort out your professional tweets from your personal tweets. They will all be considered a reflection of you as an individual. “RT does not = endorsement” is not going to cut it. It’s safer to not tweet and/or not retweet something you don’t want to defend, but you could always phrase it as a question to ask other’s opinions. Also, I recommend adding the disclaimer “my opinions are my own not my employers” on accounts using your professional name. As a rule of thumb, if your account is going to be opinion filled, use an avatar with a pseudonym for anonymity. It’s better to be safe than sorry later.
When using your professional name, it should consist of useful information, advice, inspirational quotes, resources, and/or projects that make you look good professionally. If you are only on twitter anonymously, you are missing opportunities to enhance your professional development. If you are using twitter with your professional name and it’s a private account, you are still doing yourself a disservice. What’s the point of being on Twitter with a private account because it’s difficult for someone to connect with you and no one can retweet your profound 140 characters?
To Google or Not To Google
As practitioners, we should not be asking whether to Google or Not Google instead we should be giving you the information on how to Google clients and potential clients ethically. According to a recent study by American Psychological Association, 98 percent of clinical, counseling, and school doctoral students reported Googling their clients. It’s time for this profession to readjust our reality for the digital world we are living in. When Googling a client or anyone for that matter, one must keep in mind that everything on the internet is not true, and it should not be used to penalize without giving the individual a chance to respond.
However, for potential clients at a private practice or when making home visits to new clients, a Google search may be a vital tool in assessing social worker safety. Dr. Ofur Zur provides one of the most comprehensive resources on whether to “Google or not”, and its complete with scenarios and varying categories to help practitioners decide which category is best for your practice and needs. It also covers how to use informed consent for conducting Google searches at the beginning of the therapeutic relationship.
How Do We Move Forward?
Unfortunately, many people have been introduced to social media and online technology as entertainment or to be used as a personal diary. Even if your account is marked private, using instant messaging, email, online technology and/or social media should never be used with an expectation of privacy. You should always assume any information you post online can be privy to public consumption via screen capturing or other measures from anyone who is intent on hurting or exposing you.
In my opinion, the social worker in the above case was condemned because her comment was posted on Facebook. I argue that if said social worker made the same comment in a restaurant, classroom, or another public place would the disciplinary action have been the same? The counter-argument was that Facebook is public and archived by Google which makes it different. I assert we all need to be more careful and aware because we live in a digital age where you can be video tapped or audio recorder via camera phone, vined, viddyed, snapchat, etc. The individual in possession of such digital data can make your actions and comments public without your consent. The medium in which words and actions are transported is irrelevant, and it stifles our ability to move the conversation forward instead of focusing on best practices.
Most importantly, one of the biggest issues in the above case not being addressed is that fact the client went onto Google searching for the social worker in question. Community Care UK reported that 85% of social workers reported being harassed or verbally abused on the job. Whether the client was acting with nefarious intent or in preparation for a pending court case, we simply don’t know. However, social worker safety should be just as important as client confidentiality. The biggest mistake made by the disciplined social worker was her checking in on Facebook thereby giving the time and location for when she would be in court. Why are we not being programmed to think about social worker safety as much as client confidentiality is drilled in our heads?
As a profession, we can not begin the journey of leveraging online technology and social media to advance social work because we are stuck having conversations about account creation, security, and ethical use. These things should always be ongoing conversations, but we have got to start making advances in tech education and training. Agencies, associations, and social work faculty can not adequately answer or provide solutions because most don’t use social media or they utilize outside firms to meet their social media needs. There is nothing wrong with contracting out to meet the needs of your organization, but we must also have mechanisms in place to address social workers’ technological IQ at the micro and mezzo levels.
We must develop continuing education credits, foundational course work, and in-service trainings to properly prepare current and future social workers for practice in the digital age. Social Work education is expensive and students should be demanding that they get the best resources and training during their education especially when they can be fired or disciplined for it later.
Most importantly, we have a duty to our students and professionals to assist them in harnessing all the advantages that social media and technology can provide.
*Since this was a UK regulatory body disciplinary action, I primarily used UK resources for this article, but they are applicable globally.
What “Bachelor in Paradise” Can Teach us About Empowering the Disability Community
Are you a fan of “Bachelor in Paradise?” Whether you realize it or not, this season of the “Bachelor” franchise spinoff took on the topic of disability empowerment. Which is not exactly an expected topic for mainstream television. For years, the “Bachelor” series has been criticized for featuring primarily White contestants, and has worked to diversify the races and ethnicities of the people they draw on the show. But what about people from the disability community or people who identify as Deaf or hard-of-hearing?
Being disabled or Deaf or hard of hearing are also social identities in American culture – identities that should not be overlooked in the show’s representation. These communities represent what some refer to as the largest minority community in the United States at 26 percent of the U.S. population according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In the following, we’ll discuss more about why this year’s “Bachelor in Paradise” was so significant and what that may mean for social workers.
A few years ago, we did have Sarah Herron on the show, a woman with a physical disability, although her presence was short-lived. But this season, the very first person down the stairs to the Mexican beachfront hacienda was Abigail Heringer, a 26 year-old woman who identifies as Deaf due to congenital hearing loss from birth. She received cochlear implants at the age of two but does consider herself disabled due to her hearing impairment and loss. Abigail was a central figure in this summer’s Bachelor in Paradise due to her romance with Noah Erb.
It was refreshing to see a disabled person in a romantic relationship given the history our culture has of thinking that disabled folks are asexual, incapable of having sex or in need of being protected from any kind of sexual contact. Abigail and Noah’s relationship has played out on television screens across Bachelor Nation – from their devastating breakup at the show’s conclusion to their rekindled romance announced subtly on social media later. This demonstrates that members of the disability community have relationships too, and that this is 100% normative behavior, with breakups, glitches, awkwardness, kissing and all!
The Dignity of Risk
So how does this relate to social work practice? One of the central tenets of good disability social work is how we need to honor the concept of the dignity of risk. This is the idea that everyone can learn from everyday risks. Central to honoring the dignity of risk is respecting an individual’s autonomy and self-determination to make choices. Also important, is the right for our clients to make choices even if social workers or other professionals in the person’s life feel that they could endanger the decision-maker in question. In order to respect a person’s dignity of risk, one should provide intermittent support even if others do not approve of the choice.
As there is inherent dignity in the experience of everyday risk, this concept suggests that limiting a disabled person’s ability to make even a risky choice, or limiting their access to the learning that comes along with a potentially emotionally painful risk, such as dating, does not foster overall wellness in the long run. Abigail, from this year’s “Bachelor in Paradise” is a wonderful example of the kind of empowerment needed, rather than sheltering one from risks in life.
Robert Perske famously wrote:
“Overprotection may appear on the surface to be kind, but it can be really evil. An oversupply can smother people emotionally, squeeze the life out of their hopes and expectations, and strip them of their dignity. Overprotection can keep people from becoming all they could become…”
Arguably, the dignity of risk may be among the most challenging tenets for social workers to embrace in their practice, but it is vital to accept given its intersection with self-determination. The dignity of risk also involves learning about the part of life that involves sexual and romantic relationships. Social workers need to remember to talk to their clients about sexuality in a developmentally appropriate manner. It is important not to cut off conversations about this topic, or to skirt the subject when it comes up. We must also support our clients in exploring how to engage in healthy relationships when they have the opportunities to be in them.
It’s wonderful that Abigail Heringer can be a model in reminding us of this important lesson for empowerment-oriented disability social work. One that embraces the dignity of risk for those who wish to date! With that being said, here’s to Noah and Abigail’s relationship!
Unpacking the Historical Relationship of Racism and Ableism
A key part of anti-racist social work practice is engaging in the art of reflection as we consider the person in the environment. This also involves being aware of the larger social context in which we live and practice. The social context can, for some people, include experiences of racism and ableism. Recently, I wrote about the symbiotic relationship between racism and ableism and why social workers should care about it. Now, I want to take a step back and look at the historical context that leads us to where we are today with the relationship for disabled people of color. Through the consideration of history, we can understand how to better move forward with integrity as anti-racist social work practitioners.
As the poet Maya Angelou said “History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived, but if faced with courage, need not be lived again.” So what are the historical roots of this relationship between racism and ableism? Let’s explore.
Historical Roots of Ableism and Racism
We began to see the interaction between ableism and racism way back in our nation’s history. Let’s look at four examples to make this relationship clear. During slavery times, slaveowners conjured up the idea of drapetomania, the alleged psychosis that was experienced by runaway slaves which in retrospect was emblematic of the interaction of ableism and racism. This is an example of how race is pathologized to create racism. In other words, people of color were treated in specific oppressive ways in order to create barriers and conditions that resulted in the origination of disability categories. In reflecting on drapetomania, Isabella Kres-Nash points out that “the concept of disability has been used to justify discrimination against other groups by attributing disability to them.” Of drapetomania specifically, Kres-Nash says this is an example of a “disability being created by people in power in order to preserve social order” all of which occurred in a racialized context during slavery.
Moving into the 19th century, we can point to the popularity of phrenology, a pseudoscientific technique originally developed in the late 1700s which purports to determine an individual’s character and abilities (and therefore, alleged superiority). This could be deduced from the size and shape of various bumps on a person’s head. Phrenology, among other things, was used to justify the practice of slavery, as was depicted in the film Django, Unchained. Although this pseudoscience has long been discredited, this technique is considered a precursor to modern neuropsychology and rears its ugly head once in a while in current-day conversations about the use of technology and facial recognition (which is known to be much less accurate for people of color).
If we look to more recent times, such as the turn of the 20th century, we can see connections between racism and the ableist Eugenics movement which sought to breed a perfect human race through a form of “scientific racism.” This movement often targeted what were known as “feebleminded” people (now known as intellectually and developmentally disabled people), among others, for sterilization, many of whom were people of color. In his discussion on the treatment of African American and Black “feebleminded” people, historian Gregory Dorr says “African Americans had become the targets of extra-institutional and extra-legal sterilizations, reflective of a more general southern racist view that it was necessary to further protect the white race itself from black folks.” Thus, scientific racism is a prime example of the relationship between racism and ableism.
An Unusual Island in Maine
In the early 1900s, what transpired with the inhabitants of Malaga Island in Maine is also emblematic of the relationship between racism and ableism. This small coastal island was a multiracial fishing community originally founded by an ex-slave. While inter-racial marriage was illegal, the community apparently allowed people to live and let live in this regard. It is said that many of the inhabitants of the island were “feebleminded” or intellectually and developmentally disabled, as we would now say. Whether this is accurate is unknown. As the Eugenics movement gained popularity and as the value of Maine’s coastal islands became more clear as potential tourist destinations, state government officials issued an eviction order to all of the Malaga residents – of all races and ethnicities. All residents who had no place to go were to be placed in the Maine School for the Feebleminded, where some were eventually sterilized and lived out the rest of their lives. The price of miscegenation was banishment from a happy community due in large part to ableism and racism.
An Inextricable Link
These four historical lessons give us some important context for what we may see in social work practice today. So, to put it all together, when we look at how structural racism works, we see the ways in which it has pathologized Black and Brown bodies for the purpose of keeping the White status quo in place. We can see how a society that benefits from structural racism is simultaneously responsible for facilitating environments that promote the development or highlighting of disability. These historical situations set the foundations for present day scenarios in which racism and ableism interact regularly – in our criminal justice system, in our education system, in our health care system, in our child welfare system and beyond.
How can you learn from this history and move on in a positive direction? Your job is to reflect on the ways in which the past plays out in the present day, and to identify the ways in which you can disrupt the powerful relationship between ableism and racism in your social work practice. Here are five steps you can consider taking today as an equity-minded social work practitioner:
- Become aware of all of your client’s social identities, think about disability as an identity, not just race.
- Use data to identify inequitable processes and outcomes based on both race and disability.
- Reflect on the differential consequences of social work practices on people and communities based on race and disability.
- Exercise agency to produce equity across racial and disability groups.
- View the practice context as a potentially oppressive and marginalizing space and self-monitor interactions with clients/patients/constituents of different racial and disability social identities.
Sexual Education & Disability: Why it Should Matter to Social Workers
What do you get when you mix the taboo nature of discussing sexual intimacy with the social stigma surrounding intellectual and developmental disabilities? The answer: a heck of a lot more problems than you might think. Sexual education in the school setting is already a hot-button issue for non-disabled students. But when students with intellectual and developmental disabilities are introduced into the mix, so too are the ableist stigmas we all hold.
I would like to start this piece with a brief exercise one of the health teachers at my high school conducted at the beginning of sex ed. Repeat after me: Penis. Vagina. Penis. Vagina. Why do you think she would make a room of teenagers yell these words in school? Isn’t that inappropriate? If you think it is, you proved my point from earlier. Sexual intimacy and anything loosely related to sex are currently incredibly taboo topics. To help break down the air of discomfort surrounding such topics, that health teacher did something many are afraid to do: she spoke openly and encouraged others to follow suit.
One could argue these topics are not to be spoken about simply because we are taught to not speak about them. A child can ask why their anatomy is different from their siblings, but they will often be met with shushes or roundabout answers. In many cases, there is no reason for this reaction other than traditional values. Those same values are often times what causes conflict in regard to sexual education in public schools.
My sex ed experience at a public school was mediocre at best. Genitalia, STIs, and contraceptive methods were discussed. Consent was not taught nor were the proper ways to actually engage in sex, just that if we did it we should do it safely. This was not the most educational experience. And if this is what I received, what is the experience of children and adolescents with intellectual and developmental disabilities?
The Institutional Deficit
Working in a behavioral school for boys with emotional, developmental, and intellectual disabilities yields an interesting perspective. These students are taught the same subjects most other students in the country are taught just with more academic and therapeutic support. However, they are not always provided with a health class.
I worry greatly about this institutional deficit, partly due to my own ableism. These students are receiving very little, if any, sexual education during the school year from our faculty and who knows what they see on the Internet and what their families and friends are telling them. As they get older and begin to develop their curiosity, I am worried that they might not always have a reliable source of sexual education. With that, the concept of consent is often discussed but not in the context of intimacy. I don’t know if the connection between consent and sexual activities has been made or if it ever will be in this school setting. I don’t know if some of these students would understand the magnitude of these topics. I’d like to think these kids can do anything, but from what I’ve seen I don’t know if I would feel confident in their understanding. I wish I could feel otherwise.
Individuals with an intellectual or developmental disability are seven times more likely to experience sexual assault than non-disabled people. In many cases, the perpetrator is another individual with an intellectual or developmental disability. Ableism likely prevents people from thinking this to be possible. Common stereotypes around this population convince the non-disabled community that these individuals can do no wrong and are by default sweet and innocent. Of course, this is not realistic. Another ableist stereotype, as seen above, is the incapability of this population to understand topics related to sexual education and sexual intimacy. Like the non-disabled community, however, individuals with an intellectual or developmental disability prove that idea wrong.
Why This Matters to Social Workers
So, if people with intellectual and developmental disabilities are able to learn about sexual education, and learning about sexual education dramatically decreases instances of sexual assault, then what is the reason for this population to not receive sexual education? The signs point towards ableism held by those in helping professions, with social workers being a perfect example. While the social work community prides itself on how educated and accepting they are of different identities, very rarely do social workers take the time to reflect upon identities they may not be as familiar with. Race and sexual orientation are examples of identities social workers study extensively, but disability as an identity and the depths of disability culture are rarely examined. To combat this, social workers need to begin the process of confronting personal ableism.
Confronting personal ableism is difficult, but doing so will only benefit social workers and others who choose to do so. It is important and necessary to challenge internal biases. Critically examining personal ableist ideas pushes social workers to gain a different perspective. Through this difficult process, one gains clarity in the issues they may not even know they wrestle with. Understanding how ableism impacts perceptions allows social workers to get a firm grasp on the disability community. They may begin to feel empowered to advocate for a change they never once considered, such as a stronger sexual education program for people with an intellectual or developmental disability. The importance of critically examining personal biases should be emphasized throughout the entirety of the social work community and by every social worker.
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