My dear brothers and sisters, how can you claim to have faith in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ if you favor some people over others? (James 2:1 NLT)
Ableism. It’s a term used a lot on social media platforms these days and it’s the hot button topic for the disabled community, me included. “Ableism” or “ableist” are succinct terms that identify comments or actions of individuals, groups of people, or organizations that are discriminatory towards the disabled community and put able-bodied people in a position of superiority.
When I attended the NACSW convention in 2016 in Cincinnati, Ohio I remember rolling into the main ballroom at the hotel on my battery powered scooter and realized there was no way for me to get to the main floor where all the other attendees were sitting. I don’t remember anything about the plenary session because a few others in wheelchairs also came in and were relegated to the back of the ballroom through no fault of our own. I felt an overwhelming sense of sadness and frustration that we were separated from our colleagues especially in an organization that puts a focus on Christians being a caring community and ascribing to the code of ethics that includes challenging social injustices for oppressed and vulnerable groups. But I felt God calling me to use that experience and for the first time I saw my disability and my education as a social worker come together to enable me to educate a larger audience on ableism (as it was clear in my communications with NACSW members at large, staff, and board members that the lack of accessibility was not intentional). Prior to this experience I had only advocated for myself during my time in the educational system and for my individual needs as an employee, but not on a larger scale. It was a scary and big undertaking but my faith in God helped me take this advocacy role and I’m still advocating on a larger scale as an active NACSW Board Member.
However, ableism and lack of advocacy against ableism are still prevalent and we need to become aware of how to address this within ourselves, our profession, and within NACSW. Below are a few ways we can address ableism:
- For educational institutions: Adding in curriculum for BSW, MSW, and Doctorate programs modules that specifically focus on ableism and how to address implicit bias and internal ableism. Educate on the Americans with Disabilities Act policy, but also put address anti-ableist language in both written and spoken forms. Be mindful about how prayer and healing relate to curriculum about ableism. Being disabled doesn’t mean there is something wrong with a person or that a person who is disabled needs or wants healing. Praying for someone who has a disability to be healed can be ableist because it implies that being able-bodied is superior.
- For organizations: Require implicit bias training that includes a module on internal ableism for your employees and offer a workshop if you are a membership- oriented organization. Pose the question: How can we empower people with disabilities within our organization? Be mindful to not confuse empowerment with tokenism which is defined as “The practice of making only a perfunctory or symbolic effort to do a particular thing, especially by recruiting a small number of people from underrepresented groups in order to give the appearance of equality within society.” (Unbound Team, 2020).
- Do not frame someone’s disability as tragic or inspirational. See them for their whole selves. Consider the story of the man blind from birth in John 9. Jesus loved him for who he was as a whole person, not just because he was blind and when he was excluded from the temple, Jesus brought into community (Benson, 2014).
- Become more aware and advocate for greater accessibility in your surroundings. Compassion and advocacy, to which we are called as both Christians and social worker, can be as simple as noticing if there are accessible entrances and exits to restaurants or businesses you visit. When opening a door, take time to see if there is a push button to activate the door to open automatically. When visiting a restaurant, check to see if they offer braille menus. Advocate for inclusion by reaching out to businesses you use and provide them with education on ADA and ableism or attend meetings for your city and bringing these issues to their attention.
As members of the body of Christ, we need to be united and work together to function as one unit. The body has many parts and we’re all given talents. Everyone has roles that they’re capable of performing and that make a vital contribution to the whole body (1 Corinthians 12: 13).
Brittany Orians, LMSW received her BSW from Olivet Nazarene University (’09) and MSW from UNC (’11). She is licensed as a clinical social worker and currently working as a counselor and case manager for a local private practice in Okemos, Michigan. She is a NACSW Board Member 2018-Present and has been a member of NACSW since 2015.
References and Resources
Unbound Team. (2020, September 23). 8 Ways Ableism Shows Up In Religious Spaces. Unbound: An Interactive Journal On Christian Social Justice. https://justiceunbound.org/8-ways-ableism-shows-up-in-religious-spaces/
Benson, Dave. (2014, August 14). Why Jesus Won’t ‘Heal Disabilities’. Wondering Fair. https://wonderingfair.com/2014/08/14/why-jesus-won%E2%80%99t-heal-%E2%80%98disabilities%E2%80%99/