Unlearning Ableism, a Social Worker’s Duty

Becoming a social worker is never how I expected my career path to go. I always admired what they did but never believed myself capable of doing it. Now that I am in my graduate program for social work, the pieces are all falling into place. Finally, I found a community that encompassed everything that I was passionate about, and the best part is I could do it as a career. Here, in my social work program, is where I was first introduced to the disability community properly. I say properly because it was here that I understood I needed to unlearn so many things that I hadn’t realized were downright insulting. And I’m not alone with this issue; ableism is common everywhere, sometimes even from those with good intentions.

My Experience

My parents always were great educators. They breezed through explaining tough topics that most parents tend to shy away from teaching their kids. I entered school with an open mind, and I remember myself being overall judgment-free. If only it was that easy. I grew up in a wealthy, upper-middle-class town with a majority White population. I don’t remember being in school with many disabled students, and I am realizing now this is because they were segregated from the rest of the classrooms or their parents had transferred them to other schools that fit their needs better than my public elementary school. Here comes the ableism. Knowing what I know now, I would like to go back in time and yell at myself for participating in these things.

My largest memory of being ableist was participating as a teacher’s assistant in the downstairs, special education room. I was 15 and had good intentions of helping. One student, in particular, that I worked with was non-verbal and communicated through either note-cards with phrases or via a series of grunts for yes and no. I remember feeling a lot of pity for him. The thought of not being able to communicate was terrible to me. I also remember them having few expectations for him. The entire day was mostly life skills teaching. Every small action was met with high praise. I know now that my expectations should have been higher, and my praise emphasized his internalized ableism of having few skills. No one thought he was capable of using a communication device, including me. I just followed the leads of the adults. They didn’t push him, so I didn’t push him. It never crossed my mind to do anything else.

My participation in this classroom was harmful, and it changed the way I thought about the disability community in a negative way. I left the classroom thinking that many disabled individuals could not live independently. That they were incapable of being unsupervised. It made me believe it was ok to infantilize these students. That they should have been praised for every small task they completed, even though many of them were fully capable of doing much more. Why did my attitude shift to pity?

How I Changed

To this day, I still catch myself participating in ableism, but I catch myself a lot faster and try to correct my actions. When working with disabled students now, as an adult, I make sure to push them to participate, practice dignity of risk, and encourage them  to see what they are capable of. I speak openly about their disabilities and practice educating them on what they need to know. I try to send messages of positivity and correct the internalized ableism they feel about themselves. I have come a long way from that girl in the classroom in the basement, but I still have a long way to go.

A Lesson for Social Workers

The idea of ableism is a difficult topic for many. Admitting you participate in it can be a tough pill to swallow, especially in the field of social work. Social workers are supposed to be the “good guys”, and ableism can clash with that idea. It is important for social workers, and those embarking on their journey into the field to remember that we all grew up in an ableist society. We cannot help the lens in which we were raised in, but we can grow our thinking beyond it. The disabled community is already playing on uneven ground due to our ableist society; they don’t need social workers to continue to perpetuate this thinking. Good practice starts within us, and by continuing to be an ableist the social work profession will continue to be poisoned. One of the largest ways that social workers can be good allies to the disabled community is by reflecting on their own ableism to better support the community.

Published by

Mia Hayden

Mia Hayden is a MSW student at Salem State University in Salem, Massachusetts. She received her undergraduate education at Roger Williams University with double majors in Anthropology & Sociology, and double minors in Psychology and Educational Studies. She is pursuing a masters in social work to  help young children on their journey through the school system and on their way to adulthood. Being an Asian-American adoptee has driven her to become passionate about anti-oppressive practice and social justice.

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