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Disability

Class Picture Singles Out Student With a Disability

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miles

Though class pictures can create nostalgia about our younger years, for one young boy his elementary class group picture caused his parents to become mortified by the lack of insensitivity shown to their son, and their outrage caught the attention of social media.  Miles Ambridge is a 7-year-old boy who attends Herbert Spencer Elementary School in British Columbia, Canada.

Miles has spinal muscular atrophy, which is a disorder that affects the spinal nerve cells; Miles is unable to walk, and uses a wheelchair to move about.  In the class photograph, Miles is clearly separated from his classmates and can be seen leaning his body towards his classmates in order to be a part of the picture.  When Miles’ parents saw the photograph, they wrote the British Columbia school asking for the photograph to be retaken.  Though Miles did not seem to have been negatively affected by the blatant act of insensitivity that occurred, his parents were not pleased with how their son was treated.

When I heard about this story, it broke my heart.  I remember my teachers, teacher assistants, and personal aides ensuring that I felt equal and as important as my able-bodied elementary school classmates.  I played on the jungle gym and other fun contraptions on the playground, went on class field trips, and participated in almost every school program/event offered.  I never felt “different,” even though I knew that I was in a wheelchair and had to do physical therapy during school hours.

The fact that the teacher, the photographer, and other adults who may have been present, condoned (by “condoned,” I am referring to the adults’ inaction and/or lack of awareness about how Miles’ placement would be perceived) what took place truly disturbed me.  It caused me to ponder how we view students, who will eventually become adults, with disabilities.

Do such actions of insensitivity and lack of awareness cause students with disabilities to realize that they are different?  When the “innocence of differences” veil is removed in this manner, how does that affect one’s self-esteem about who and what they are?  Miles is fortunate to have such proactive parents, but what about children whose parents are hesitant to make waves and demand equal treatment?  What can be learned from this incident about how we treat students and adults with disabilities, and how such actions and attitudes can affect one’s psyche and sense of self-worth?

The Today Show released Thursday morning the new class picture that shows Miles sitting with his classmates, with a big smile on his face.  The picture made me smile, knowing that a wrong has been corrected, but how many more “Miles'” must there be before we truly become a society of inclusion and empowerment for all people, despite ability?

This story can be seen as an example of ableism, which is the discrimination and prejudice of individuals with disabilities.  Though this particular story took place in Canada, ableism is practiced here in America, and other parts of the world.

Despite the fact that we have the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and other policies  that are suppose to create an equal playing field for people with disabilities to enhance their quality of life, these policies do not always prevent individuals from displaying offensive behaviors or voicing inappropriate opinions about people with disabilities.

More has to be done to ensure that our students are being treated fairly and have access to adequate resources in their schools, and that adults are able to pursue their dreams without fearing that their disability will hinder their efforts towards independence and self-sufficiency.

Being disabled should not mean being disqualified from having access to every aspect of life.

Emma Thompson

Retaken Class Picture of Miles Ambridge

(Featured photo:  Courtesy of the Today Show.)

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Disability

Hurricane Irma: Two Things Helping Professionals Need to Know About People with Disabilities

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Photo: AP

The state of Florida has called for 17,000 volunteers to help out with the post-Irma recovery process, but there’s one population that are often forgotten in the crush of storm evacuation and disaster recovery efforts, and that is people with disabilities.

Recently, at a social work conference, I was told “disability is not a social work issue,” which is a shocking statement, given that over one-fifth of the United States’ population has a disability according to the Centers for Disease Control. All too often, people with disabilities are left feeling invisible in our society – and as helping professionals, we need to right this wrong. In order to begin to do this work, especially given the impact of Hurricanes Irma and Harvey on our country, here are two things helping professionals need to know about people with disabilities.

Storms such as Irma and Harvey are very likely to have a disproportionate impact on people with disabilities – see Professor Rabia Belt’s commentary on this topic. During Hurricane Katrina and surely many others, it came to light that many people with disabilities were unable to evacuate due to mobility limitations, equipment needs, staffing needs, requirements for service animals or just having a low income.

We know that people with disabilities are much more likely to live in poverty in this country, and this can really take a toll during storm evacuations and disaster recovery. In fact, during Katrina, 155,000 people with disabilities aged 5 and up lived in the cities hardest hit by the storm – and unfortunately, a disproportionate amount of Katrina’s fatalities involved this population. Helping professionals need to see people with disabilities – and seek them out prior to, during and after a storm.

Given these realities, it is important to design disaster preparedness and recovery efforts so that they are accessible to all – including people with disabilities in keeping with the Americans with Disabilities Act. In the disability community, stories about people with mobility limitations, nursing needs, and service animals being refused shelter or assistance are making the rounds. We must do better.

The National Council on Disability wrote an extensive report on the topic of disaster preparedness, and it provides great guidance for disaster planning and recovery efforts – be prepared! There is also specialized guidance on how to create accessible programs and spaces for people with disabilities during and after a devastating storm in a way that promotes self-determination.

People with disabilities do not want to be victims, and helping professionals should support their self-determination during evacuations, sheltering and recovery. Portlight Inclusive Disaster Strategies, an organization based in the southern United States, is the go-to source for assistance with people with disabilities during these storms. Please use their hotline for assistance with your clients with disabilities 1-800-626-4959.

Their motto is drawn from the disability civil rights movement, “nothing about us without us.” As you gear up to provide help before, during and after these storms, keep this motto in mind and let it guide your practice. We can do better for people with disabilities, and we will.

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Disability

A Teacher’s Response to Charlottesville for Social Workers in Practice with People with Disabilities

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Charlottesville Black Cop

Officer patrols in front of a recent KKK rally in Charlottesville, Va. – Jill Mumie

I am currently teaching a course on social work practice with people with disabilities.  The course uses an intersectional lens, acknowledging the fact that people have many intersecting social identities that can result in varying types of privilege and oppression.  As such, I had to provide some venue for my students to address the Charlottesville violence and hate speech.  The following is a discussion prompt I provided for them to respond to, and I thought other social work educators might be interested in seeing this so that they could use it and/or modify it for their own courses.  Feedback welcome!

Discussion prompt: As we are part of a course on social work practice with people with disabilities in the United States of America, I would be remiss not to address the events of this past weekend in Charlottesville, Virginia. As you have already likely gathered, there are important links between the White nationalist/Nazi actions in Virginia, and the work we do as social workers with people with disabilities – who often have intersecting marginalized social identities.

Many of the perspectives held by members of White nationalist/Nazi groups are clearly identifiable as racist, sexist, homophobic, anti-Semitic and even Eugenic in nature.  Therefore, as social workers practicing under our particular Code of Ethics, we need to respond. If you need some quick resources to learn more about the dynamics that led to the Charlottesville rally and violence, you can check out the “Charlottesville Syllabus” at this link.

As disability-aware social workers training to view the world through an intersectional lens, we need to acknowledge and act on what has happened in Charlottesville. That means that we need to engage in discussions – often difficult in nature – with our families, our co-workers and with our clients. Let’s start with our work with clients.

One prominent disability civil rights activist, Rebecca Cokley, has noted that when terrorist incidents like this occur, people with disability count the minutes until ableist claims about the ‘crazy’ person who engaged in terrorist acts roll in. That may be an important place for you to start a conversation with a client with a disability in a week like this one. In this essay, Ms. Cokley points out another important link between disability and trauma.  She calls for the disability community (and disability service providers) to reach out to those whose disabilities came about as a result of trauma, such as the people who were injured and impaired by the car driven by the White nationalist/Nazi from Ohio. Her essay is short, easy to read and compelling and you can find it here.

It is also important to remember, however, that our work is not just direct care work. Remember, the NASW Code of Ethics states that we must fight for social justice, as it is a core value in our profession. We need to do more than discuss these difficult topics amongst ourselves, we also need to take a stand on them. I am fond of the idea that if we are not part of the solution, we are part of the problem.

It is important to move beyond ideas of ourselves as “good” people and work towards actively addressing the webs of oppression that exist in our world, little bit by little bit. Here is an example about how ADAPT, the national disability civil rights organization, has taken a stance on the events in Charlottesville. Where might you be able to stake your claim to your own stance?  Check out these ideas for 10 ways to fight hate from the Southern Poverty Law Center.

Finally, I want to leave you with a challenging set of questions. Although there are many facets to the NASW Code of Ethics, let us remember that the mission of the social work profession is rooted in a set of core values, including the idea that there is dignity and worth in every person.  How would you respond to a client with a disability who actively identified as a White nationalist/Nazi if you were to be assigned such a client today? What if she didn’t want to work with you because you were a woman of color?  What if she had been arrested for street fighting during the “Unite the Right” rally and was open about her wish to “hurt Leftists?”  Based on your training thus far in this social work program, how would you approach your work with this client?

How would you respond to a client with a disability who actively identified as a White nationalist/Nazi if you were to be assigned such a client today? What if she didn’t want to work with you because you were a woman of color? What if she had been arrested for street fighting during the “Unite the Right” rally and was open about her wish to “hurt Leftists?”  Based on your training thus far in this social work program, how would you approach your work with this client?

Please leave your comments about this discussion prompt and how it might be improved or expanded upon.  All feedback is welcome.

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Becoming the Champion for Supported Autonomy

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Autonomy is often used to mean independence. Though their dictionary definitions are similar and they are synonyms of each other, I like to talk about autonomy in a slightly different way.

For me, autonomy is having the choice over when I am independent and when I am dependent. It’s similar to the notion of interdependence, except the latter, interdependence, suggests an ongoing process of co-operation or collaboration. Perhaps autonomy could include the choice of interdependence as well, but for now, I want to focus on the aspect of choice.

Many disability services have, at their core, a desired outcome of independence. Functioning on one’s own, without the help of others, is considered success. Dependence on others, by comparison, is seen as undesirable, costly and, hence, unsuccessful in the wonderful world of disability service provision. In the even more amazing worlds of case management and needs assessment, however, dependence could be synonymous with abject failure — or worse: disaster!

This obsession to make disabled people independent has always seemed absurd to me. No one is completely independent, after all — we depend on builders for houses; lawyers and police for protection (sometimes one from the other); artists to adorn our walls — and so the list goes on. And while cleaning the house is a relatively simple chore, many choose — and still others actually need — to pay others to do it for them.

So if someone, on account of their unique function, can’t — or at least find it difficult to — get dressed in the morning, why is so much emphasis placed on finding ways for them to do it themselves, independently, no matter the time or effort spent?

When I began to live “independently” at around 20 years of age, I did so with no support, apart from a flatmate who was as — or more — often out than at home. I’d start my day spending an hour abluting and getting dressed, including donning the most horrendously style-destroying footwear — gray sneakers with velcro straps — because I couldn’t tie laces. Then I’d have breakfast, only to have to begin the tortuous task of washing dishes, usually from the day — or more — before.

By about 11 am I’d stop for a cigarette, all the while relishing the anticipation of cleaning the house — be it vacuuming, dusting, cleaning the floors or, god forbid, the frigging toilet. By the time 1 or 2 pm came around, I was physically knackered, often in pain and more or less good for nothing for the rest of the day.

But, I was being independent.

I can’t remember how long it was that it took me to unbrainwash myself — longer than it should have, given I tend towards masochism as one of my learning edges. But I finally managed to process the cognitive dissonance slowly creeping into my consciousness: if “independence” meant doing nothing more than menial chores in unfashionable shoes, well, I didn’t want to be independent.

So, I threw myself into the wonderful world of needs assessment and disability support services (WWNADSS), learning very quickly the two cardinal rules of getting one’s needs met: 1. never say you can do something but it’s difficult, and 2. never say you can do something but it’s difficult.

Because something being difficult meant there could be an assistive device, designed to make things easier (ergo increasing independence). It could actually be badly designed such as the unfashionable velcroed shoes or more than likely useless and more time-consuming.

Thus, I learned the valuable lesson of black and white ability — not the competence to change ethnicity but rather that, in the WWNADSS, there were only two answers: 1. I can; and 2. I can’t. Later, I learned a third answer, the dismal future speculation: if I keep doing this one thing now, it’s highly likely to fuck me up so badly that, in 5-10 years’ time, I’ll be unable to do 3 things. Ergo more, perhaps unnecessary dependence will now equate to less independence henceforth. Net result, more independence. Success! A great rule that folks, learn it.

I exaggerate in jest — this was the 1980s and things are slightly less black and white these days (though its legacy lingers). I write this off the back of a lecture I did with case management students at AUT University yesterday. My point was that they reframe their role, from being the champion of independence, to being a facilitator of supported autonomy. In other words, guiding people to choose where and when in their lives they want to be independent and where and when they want to be dependent. It may seem an obvious change in understanding, but the old independence imperative is still surprisingly prominent in the WWNADSS as well as case management.

Who knows, had I not realised the impact of its potentially paralysing grip on my life, independence could have stopped me writing this post as I look back on a successful 22 years’ professional career. I could still be washing the dishes.

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