Language Is Power: Two Things You Need to Know for Practice with Disabled People

Did you know that over one fifth of the United States population has an impairment that leads to a disability? Given this, social workers are bound to engage in practice with disabled people across many service sectors – a reality which leads to the need for disability competence – and that includes competence around language choices.

Whether you are working in child welfare, employee assistance programs, criminal justice or end-of-life care, you will need some guidance on how to approach your work with disabled people in a respectful manner. Here are two helpful things you need to know to be a better social worker in partnership with disabled people.

First, it is always ideal to look to your professional association for guidance. In the case of practice with the disability community, the National Association of Social Workers not only has a disability policy statement, but they also have made a major change to their Code of Ethics (CoE).

The CoE is the guidepost in our profession, and in setting out standards for practice, it names a series of diversity factors, including, for example, race, ethnicity and national origin. Until the most recent revision of the CoE however, disability was the only diversity factor that was not framed in a positive light.

To rectify this, the current version of the CoE replaces the term “disability” with “ability” in order to present a more strength-based framework that can counteract dominant society norms that belie the capacities of disabled people. Specifically, the CoE states that social workers should “obtain education and seek to understand the nature of social diversity and oppression” with respect to people with varying abilities.

While this may be a turn off to people that embrace identity-first language (i.e. disabled people vs. people with disabilities), as a disabled person, I believe that this simple change is helpful, and does not fall into the camp of widely-rejected, outdated and offensive terms such as “differently abled,” “handicapped,” or “special needs” that are often used by well-intentioned people. Check out, for example, Lydia X. Z. Brown’s glossary of ableist phrases.

Second, it is also always a best practice to learn more about the language preferences from our clients’ cultural communities. Lately, not a day goes by on my Twitter feed when I don’t see commentary from disabled people about their preferences for either person-first language or identity-first language.

Check out the #identityfirst hashtag, for example. For many years, social workers were encouraged to use person-first language as a way of showing respect, as opposed to labeling someone as “a schizophrenic,” or “autistic,” for example, both of which were felt to have negative connotations at the time.

Proponents of identity-first language have reclaimed such terms by embracing their disability identity first. For example, a well-known disability rights leader prefers to be called Autistic, and another advocate prefers to be referred to as mad (signifying mental illness).

For social workers new to practice with disabled people, an ideal approach could involve using approaches interchangeably until it is clear what type of language is preferred by the client in question. Remember, language is a key component to client engagement, and, therefore, language is power.

Regardless of whether you are identifying populations with varying abilities, or honoring your clients’ wishes for person-first or identity-first language, the most important thing is to see people for who they are, not for the stereotypes or assumptions that often precede them.

Engaging Individuals Entrenched With Power and Privilege

University of Southern California Professor Melissa Singh with COBI Fellows in Washington, DC

Like many Macro students trying to obtain their MSW, I have gone through many trials and tribulations trying to pave my own path of what I can do with my degree. From the countless lectures spent being forced fed how to conduct Motivational Interviewing and Cognitive Behavior Therapy (I do not want to be a counselor) to being placed as an elementary school counselor (once again, I do not want to be a counselor). I honestly began to question if I would ever break free from the stereotypes of what position I could fill and achieve as a social worker.

Oftentimes, when a macro social worker states they do not like clinical work they are often met with the counter argument: “Clinical work is the foundation of our profession and every social worker must know how to engage their clients.” However, the clients we work with as macro social workers are not the same clients as a micro social worker. Macro social workers are working with clients entrenched with power and privilege.

Macro social workers are working with clients entrenched with power and privilege

In my opinion, we are working with the most difficult populations and we must  develop a different type of skillset. Skills that allow us  to navigate through the bureaucracies and change the public’s perception on what they deem underserving or the bottom of their priority list.

I have been in two different social work programs and each time as a macro social worker, I feel my education is not tailored to fit me. It wasn’t until I had to opportunity to apply for University Southern California’s Community Organizing Business Innovation (COBI) Fellowship, a program with a mission to create professionals trained to tackle organizational problems and social worker’s grand challenges by introducing, developing, and facilitating social innovation in local, national, and global settings. This mission resonated with me, and it fits my definition of what social work can be.

Over the summer, USC’s COBI Fellowship gave me the opportunity to learn and practice my macro skills. I was able to engage with individuals from 16 different agencies who are bringing innovation into the public sector and learn the tricks of the trade on how they bring positive change in resistant spaces.

There were many takeaways from the trip but here are a few:

  • The OPM Innovation Lab emphasized the importance of navigating through bureaucracy and to inspire public sectors to take risk. We also learned the concept of human-centered design.
  • We discovered the concept of developmental evaluation with Tanya Beer at the Center for Evaluation Innovation.
  • Congresswoman Karen Bass discussed how to engage individuals with privilege in the workplace. She further discussed her Shadow Day, where a foster youth is paired with a U.S. Representative and how it is not only a transformational experience for the foster youth but also, the U.S. Rep. Once a U.S. Rep spends a day with a foster youth teaching them, it becomes personal, and they think twice before saying no against a bill in the favor of foster youth. THIS IS INNOVATION!!!
  • SAMHSA discussed how to engage agencies on the importance of evaluations and message tailoring.
  • Ashoka with Changemaker Executive Partner Sachin Malhan identified the difference between addressing a need and changing the system.
  • Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues (SPSSI) discussed looking for ways to weigh in as professionals in policies.
  • NASW consultant, Joan Levy Zlotnik discussed being at the table and articulating both facts and story.

It was inspiring to be among leaders who are experimenting with different models and methods to tackle societal problem. I gained a sense of empowerment and agency being able to sit among them and exchange ideas.  Most importantly, I not only first handedly experienced the importance of having a seat at the table, but I saw my place as a social worker. After this experience, I wished more macro social work students could have an experience like this.

Like many social workers, I chose social work because I want to bring positive change in the world. Although we need social worker helping the immediate needs of individuals and their families, we also need social workers looking at the bigger picture and changing the system.

Until we invest in more macro initiatives where social work students can engage with leaders and learn the skills to navigate and collaborate with individuals who possess power and privilege, our profession will not be in the frontier of innovative change in the public sector.

Three Ways to Reduce Power and Privilege

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Pure and honest political conservatism as an ideology is often at the heart of our global problems – it unapologetically promotes privilege. While I might be wrong and certainly will be persecuted for this line, it seems to me that true conservatism is synonymous with privilege.  If we are to save our planet and our people, don’t we need to change our current acceptance of political conservatism?     

If you have followed along to this point, there are logical interventions we can put into place to make sure that we challenge the status quo and ensure we leave our own power and privilege at the door when possible. Social Workers and helping professionals need user-friendly tools to remind us of the foundational elements in any given intervention.

For example, if we are sitting with a client who is accused of or discloses the abuse of power and control against women and children, we have a window of opportunity to present information or introduce interventions to challenge and redirect the client’s path. Are you with me?

In thinking about power and privilege as I do, I came up with the following acronym to remind me of our ethical obligation to challenge privilege and the status quo. A.C.T. is a useful acronym to remember when trying to think about how to combat the structural inequities helping professionals are faced with daily.

A.  ACKNOWLEDGE

Acknowledge represents the foundational best practice of self-awareness and begins at home.  In order to combat privilege and power inequalities at the micro and macro level, we must first be aware of our own histories and privilege before we move forward in challenging privilege in our systems.

If you are a white male, for example, you have privilege. As a helping professional, it is necessary for us to understand our own person-in-society/environment position before we can help others. What do we inherently bring to the table at the outset of any conversation? What is our place in the power hierarchy in relation to our clients? How do we leave, to the extent possible, our power and privilege at the door in order to engage with our clients where they are at? How do we ensure we don’t replicate the power dynamics already impacting our clients?

C. CONVERSE

While for some it may seem overwhelming to challenge social and political systems, it can be done, and it doesn’t need to be complicated.  It starts by having conversations about the privilege you know about which is likely your own. Simply, have conversations about privilege and these conversations will bring more conversations and before you know it people are talking about power and privilege.  Conversations lead to actions and change. Conversations about power and privilege are tied to and link back to our awareness. If we question and analyze our own privilege, we are then able to help others do the same.

T.  TEACH

The next step and sometimes in conjunction with conversations is teaching.  Social workers and helping professionals are the best teachers of structural inequalities and privilege. Teach people through conversations what you know and understand about power, inequality and… you guessed it, privilege.

Our work is inextricably tied to the power structures of our organizations, our communities, and our states and our nations. As Gandhi so eloquently said, “be the change you want to see in your world!” If we desire a more equitable society, we must A.C.T. against power and privilege.

Privilege and Power: The Role of Shame and Self-Awareness

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If you are a helping professional, chances are you were trained in self-awareness and learned about its importance. In fact, self-awareness is foundational to all areas of helping. In micro intervention, we must be aware of our biases and feelings about a host of presenting problems. If we are not self-aware, we risk placing judgement on our clients and decreasing our credibility and effectiveness as a result.  

Similarly, self-awareness plays an important role at the macro level. Specifically, we must know our place in the hierarchy of the structures and systems that we are charged with ameliorating, and self-awareness must be part of what drives our analyses of structural and systemic inequality.  

The latter, self-awareness and macro structural analyses, is not a popular topic among many elements of North American society. However, without challenging the status quo with analyses such as the one contained herein, the progressive and change-oriented elements of society cannot make progress. We must challenge and be truly progressive in order to help the people we are charged with serving. Vulnerable populations and marginalized groups remain marginalized time and time again if we cannot change damaging conservative elements within our political structures.   

Evidence, a case study

I am a white male, 45 years old.  I am a 5th generation Canadian with European roots dating back to the United Empire Loyalists.  

For the majority of my adult life, I have felt a great deal of shame regarding the history of my country and that of the United States of America in so far as I can claim to know the history of the latter. The shame I have felt and carried and to some extent still carry, stems from our collective white, European history.  

Although I do not easily acknowledge my expertise, I am an ‘expert’ in many areas of social work knowledge, and  I have become ‘expert’ through study and practice experience of 20 years.  These areas include domestic family violence, trauma and posttraumatic stress.  I acknowledge my areas of expertise because they factor into the shame I feel as a person, as a man, and as a social worker who has worked with children and families for 20 years.  

Maybe I am an anomaly, but I feel and identify with shame a great majority of the time. Perhaps, it is because of my privilege as a white male.  I studied male violence toward women and children for many years and worked in the treatment of women and children victims and male perpetrators for many years.  Often, I have identified as feminist and anti oppressive almost exclusively.  

Have you read about or studied intergenerational trauma?  I wonder if this is perhaps some of what causes me historical shame?  Did my ancestors personally participate in wars and acts of oppression?  These are questions I don’t have answers to.  If I did have answers or insight into my ancestors actions in the past, I suspect they would be tainted with some sort of justification for their acts.  

Things I feel shameful for

I feel shame for being a man.  Men, I think it can be argued, are responsible for the majority of gross atrocities carried out against human populations at the individual / family, community, and societal levels.  Although we as a planet have histories of non -white men and groups acting out atrocities against others, it seems to me that the great majority of atrocities are carried out by white men or at least groups that have strong power relationship ties with white men.  In this way, white men are inextricably tied to global suffering. Other men are too but it seems to me that once you start to explore or investigate conflict it leads to the power structures that are predominantly white and male.  

Men abuse women and children. Women do too, but it occurs on a much lesser scale. Men are the face of domestic family violence as well as the atrocities and secrets which exist in patriarchal family systems.

Men stole North America from first nations peoples.  Plain and simple.  I actually can’t believe that I have never read the history of North America in such simple and truthful terms.  That is the truth, we, our ancestors, stole this continent from first nations and we used force to take it. We killed and violated countless first nations people.  How is this not a shameful history?  

Is my shame different?  

Is my shame different than that of other men?  I have no way of knowing this because to the best of my knowledge people do not generally talk about or write about this. How do I feel connected to a history that has nothing to do with me personally?  Is my shame quotient that much bigger than normal because of my own abuse and post-traumatic history?  

Is shame helpful?  I can only answer this for myself.  I know people avoid pain and shame which is a big part of psychological and emotional pain.  It seems to me that shame can destroy people through the likes of addiction and other self-destructive paths.  

But isn’t shame also helpful?  If we connect to shame doesn’t it act as a compass for moving forward?  I know that my connection and relationship with shame is something that makes me who I am. I am incapable of hurting other people unless there is a real threat to my personal safety or that of my family and loved ones.  My shame is part of my life in terms of my goals, beliefs and values.  It is no accident that I am a social worker.  

What is the cost of privilege?  

Privilege gives people power over others.  It allows people in positions of power to dictate the terms of other people’s lives.  A clear example of privilege is government setting the terms of welfare recipients for those living in poverty. Making a person do a drug test in exchange for still living below the poverty line is an abusive use of power and privilege.  Plain and simple. If this was not true, those with power and privilege are exempt from drug testing to receive government subsidies and/or other governmental funding.   

Is privilege and power the same or inextricably linked?  Does privilege corrupt like power often does?  It seems to me it does.  

I’m not naive enough to think that there is an answer to this query.  Sometimes, I’m not even exactly sure what the exact query should be. I often find myself thinking analytically and as a result negatively about the state of our world. Our current lack of global peace is a stain on all of humanity in my mind.  It is easy to remove oneself from responsibility for the current state of affairs, but this is not honest living in my mind.  Living honestly means accepting one’s connection to the past and committing to move forward in new, nonviolent and non-privileged ways. 

Power, Prejudice, and Paradox

I’ve recently changed how I describe myself or, more accurately, my experience. I now talk about “my paradoxical experience as a queer, caucasian, cisgender man with unique function (disability).”

indecision-967718-mEven doing this is paradoxical, given I argued the point in 2012 at TEDxAuckland that we need to decay labels to reveal diversity. But I’m doing it to explain a phenomenon of power, privilege and paradox, rather than to label myself.

Power and privilege have long been part of the politics of diversity and discrimination. Recently I heard another diversity expert, Leslie Hawthorne, encourage those with privilege to raise awareness of it by, for example, not using the word “lame” to describe something that is bad or stupid, because you are implying that people who can’t walk are bad or stupid.

There has also been the story of Ijeoma Oluo, a woman of colour, who experienced an instant reduction in racial slurs when she changed her Twitter profile picture to one that made her look caucasian.

These examples seem to me to slightly simplify the understanding of power and privilege — change a word here, look a bit different there. I think there are more complex subtleties at work, like context, subjectivity and objectivity, that paint a broader, more complex picture of power and privilege.

So back to me — let’s deconstruct those labels (or decay them) in terms of power and privilege (I’ll use P&P to save keystrokes).

  • Queer — not heterosexual (but not obviously so) — P&P comparatively low
  • Caucasian — not of colour — P&P unquestionably high
  • Cisgender — not transgender — P&P unquestionably high
  • Man — not woman — P&P unquestionably high
  • Unique function (disabled) — not non-disabled — P&P unquestionably low

So the question becomes, where do I sit in terms of P&P? We could do simple maths: 3 high P&P, only 2 low, ergo I have +1 P&P.

More complex maths — let’s give more points to unquestionably (2) than comparatively (1): -1+2+2+2-2=+3 — so I have +3 P&P? Or do I have +6 P&P as well as -3 P&P?

Of course this is where the paradox and complexity comes in, as well as context, subjectivity and objectivity (and other things I haven’t thought of but probably will do later). Let’s do some more decaying…

Context: As I said at TEDxAuckland, but to reframe it slightly, if I’m in a room of cisgender, caucasian men, they will not see my +6 P&P. They will see and/or sense my -3 P&P, feel awkward, discount me and I will lack P&P.

If, however, I’m in a room of indigenous, transgender and/or queer disabled people, chances are my +6 P&P will become very noticeable and my -3 P&P won’t be enough to save me. There goes my P&P. Again.

Similarly, if I’m in a recognised leadership role or on stage talking about P&P to a TEDx audience, I’ll have more of it than if I’m a stranger in the street.

Subjectivity: This works two ways. 1. The more people know me (i.e. the more subjective their experience of me), the more relative P&P I will have. They’re looking past the labels and seeing me for who I really am. 2. The more P&P I feel I have in different contexts, and the more I am aware of the behaviours and language that are commonly understood in the situation, the less threatening my perceived lack or abundance of P&P is likely to be.

Objectivity: I’ll refer back to Leslie Hawthorne, who recounted a story of an orchestra, which lacked female members. On becoming aware of this, “blind” (I’m not sure if that’s offensive or not to people who can’t see) auditions were held, so that decision-makers couldn’t tell the gender of the auditioning person.

Within a few years, female members had increased several-fold. So, ensuring some objectivity around P&P can decrease its impact.

So, where are we? Well, if you’re anything like me you’re likely in some state of confusion and uncertainty which, I would hazard to say, is a very good state from which to tackle diversity, not to mention leadership, complexity and change. Our human need to be sure and certain and to know the answers are precisely what leads us astray in the world, a world which is nothing like what we would like it to be.

In “A Short History of Stupid” by Helen Razer and Bernard Keane, Razer observes:

When you elevate lived experience to centrality in your socio- political critique and politics, you delegitimise the contribution to debate from other perspectives; if the traditional logical fallacy is appeal to authority, since the 1990s appeal to experience has come to rival it, creating a hierarchy of analysis with lived experience at the apex of authenticity. Moreover, as the phrase ‘check your privilege’ implies, it is not merely that a non- experience- based contribution to a discussion lacks legitimacy, the possession of other forms of experience creates an illegitimacy that is impossible to overcome: the scoring systems used to allocate ‘privilege points’ can be neatly flipped into a ‘how illegitimate is your opinion’ scale, depending on the colour of your skin, your sexual preference, your income and your gender. The result is a further fragmentation of public debate on issues, with fewer voices heard and greater unanimity among those voices given the imposition of dominant narratives even within sub- groups. The result is also a lesser willingness among generalists, and particularly media practitioners, to genuinely engage on policy issues arising from or including identity politics, for fear of being labelled racist/misogynist/homophobic/middle class/transgenderphobic/ableist/fattist/perpetrators of rape culture. They live in fear of fatally missing some critical nuance that would reveal them as inauthentic, or worse.

I agree. I don’t see myself (or anyone else) as absolutely either owning or lacking P&P — I don’t think it’s a useful paradigm. Sometimes we have, it sometimes we don’t. Sometimes we can influence it, sometimes we can’t. Sometimes we’re prepared, sometimes we’re not. Sorry kids, it’s messy out there.

And — hate to say it — it’s getting messier.

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