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Ways to Advocate Against Ableism as Christian Social Workers

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:

Organizationally:

  1. 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.
  1. 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).

Individually:

  1. 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).
  2. 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.

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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/

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8K9Gg164Bsw

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qJ9Elna-b0o

19 thoughts on “Ways to Advocate Against Ableism as Christian Social Workers

  1. Thank you Brittany, for both an excellent blogpost and also for your willingness to extend yourself on behalf of NACSW. I have learned much from you over the years and am grateful to count you as a friend and a colleague.

  2. Thank you Brittany for the thoughtful advice for educational programs and institutions. Disabilities has long been “the forgotten minority” in social work education according to Deweaver and Kropf (1992, p. 36). What tends to happen, as I found in my dissertation research, is that programs try to infuse the content into an already jam-packed curriculum. This leaves disability education fragmented and short changed. I teach in a small Christian school, and I readily infuse content on disability and best practices in my classes. I am planning on developing a course as a special topics course in the next year.

    I the meantime, I am going to present at this year’s NACSW’s conference on Hebrews 12:13; when Jesus instructs us to “make level paths for your feet.” I used this scripture as the basis of my presentation because it presumes a social model of disability.

    Great work, Brittany!

  3. Does the term ableist also include (or is it exclude) those who are lucky enough not to have a mental disorder? I am currently working on a portfolio for promotion and part of the criteria for Promotion includes “demonstrating enthusiasm.” As a person with chronic flat affect due to my mental traits, I was stumped by how to persuade the promotion committee that I show enthusiasm. Comments on my course evaluations routinely state that I should show more enthusiasm, be more focused, better organized, and be better prepared. In addition to depression and anxiety, I also have a diagnosis of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, which, means focus, organization, and preparation are very challenging.

    I have been ridiculed my whole life because of my flat affect. My high school tennis coach called me Mr. Excitement. No, he did not use that as a term of endearment. I have also been shamed and ridiculed for other inabilities (e.g., organization, planning, lack of focus, etc.). I have had to work extremely hard to get where I am and believe I have shown I can do my job despite my brain limitations. I have found ways to compensate for those inabilities. I just feel really shamed and angry again when I have to show others that I am something I am not (i.e, enthusiastic). I wish I could be enthusiastic, but my brain and body only allow me to be what I am.

    I enjoyed your post. I just believe people with mental challenges are often forgotten in discussions such as yours. I am not implying you are leaving us out, but only advocating for myself and others who suffer silently every day. Like you, we did not commit some egregious sin to be born with these challenges. However, I believe more people should understand the challenges those with mental disabilities face.

  4. Thank you Alan for your feedback and very valid point. In hindsight I should have titled my post in a way that identified I was discussing discussing physical disabilities and mainly those that are visible to others and clarified that this in no way minimizes the importance of addressing and advocating against ableism as it relates to those that have mental health disorders or even physical disabilities that are invisible.

    It would be great to have someone such as yourself work alongside NACSW and the board to ensure our organization is inclusive for those members and the social work community at large who struggle with mental health disorders and invisible disabilities. I also think that your experiences would make for a great presentation at one of our conventions or a CEU training.

    I also would love to see you write a blog post addressing the issue of mental disorders and ableism and how christian social workers individually and organizationally can address that issue because I would definitely benefit in being reminded of how to best advocate against ableism for those who have those diagnoses.

    Thank you so much for your comments and feedback!

    Brittany Orians LMSW

    1. I have been thinking about composing a post on the topic of ableism and mental illness. Is there a process for submitting blog posts? I looked on the main NACSW website and on the main blogs page, but cannot find information about submitting blog posts.

  5. I’ll definitely do my best to attend this workshop and would love to connect with you at the convention, thank you for your feedback!

    Please also read Alan Lipps comment below as it is very important to ensure this area is addressed as well!

  6. As someone soon to graduate with my MSW and living with a disability, your words resonate deeply with me. I would appreciate the opportunity to connect with you further.

  7. Great ideas. I would love to do any or all of your suggestions. I might start with a blog post. I was a little afraid that I might have come across as being critical of your post. I did not think you were minimizing mental disabilities. I certainly affirm you and all you mentioned in your post.

  8. Thank you for this insightful blog post. Ableism certainly is a hot topic of conversation and is something that I will engage in conversation about to protect those who are being discriminated against. It is sad for me to hear that you have had that experience and had to feel sad and frustrated emotions. You and everyone else should never feel less superior than others and should certainly feel included with your colleagues. It brings me great joy that you used this experience as a positive one to begin educating others about ableism. No one should ever be their own advocate, even though a lot of people are. This is one of the reasons that I wanted to be a social worker, is to help those who may not be able to help themselves and do or do not have an advocate. Reading this post has encouraged me to do more research on the topic of ableism and in turn, will hopefully allow me to help others who felt the way you once did. Thanks again for the post.

  9. I really enjoyed reading your blog post and I want to thank you for providing your experiences and information regarding this topic. It is sad to know that you and others out there continue to feel excluded and superior to others due to a disability. Currently where I work, I work with individuals who have an intellectual disability and I see some places who have made up their minds about an individual who maybe different and will not provide them a chance to show others their abilities. I enjoy what I do because I get to advocate for my clients everyday and get to show others how hard working and determined some of my individuals are.

  10. Thank you for sharing your experience in this post! It is surprising that in the field of social work that you and your colleagues were not given proper accommodations. Unfortunately I have seen ableism first hand in my own life with my son. I have had to advocate for him for the last 17 years and will continue to do so until God calls me home. It seems society is always wanting to teach him to “conform” however I don’t see the same education to society for them to learn and understand my son.
    I also think it is a wonderful idea to incorporate curriculum in our social work programs to address these issues. Education is the key to teaching others about differences and inclusion.

  11. Thank you for sharing your personal story as well as your thoughts on how to improve this issue. I was surprised to read that in the social work field that you and your colleagues were not given proper accommodations. Unfortunately I have experienced ableism first hand. I have a son with special needs and I have had to advocate for him for the last 17 years and will continue to do so until God calls me home.
    I also liked your proposed solutions to some of these ableism issues like providing curriculum to BSW and MSW programs to educate others on these things. I believe education is the key to making others more empathic to people with different abilities.

  12. Thank you for your post, it was very useful and eye opening to what ableism is. I have to say I was not aware of the term before this, but what caught my attention was incident that occurred to you where you were essentially separated from the main group. I do believe that there are ways that this can be incorporated into the education system of social work to teach up and coming social workers about ableism. Advocating for one self is especially important because if we don’t then who will. Thank you for the post.

  13. Hello, Ms. Orians. I think you did a great job of getting your message across about how we as social workers need to avoid ableist mindsets, comments, and actions. I am studying to be a social worker and I believe that what you said was one of the things we need to learn more about. I do not have a visible or physical disability, but an invisible and mental one that I have recently started treatment again for, and it has made a difference in my life. I also have known many people who suffer from physical and mental illnesses as well. It would be great if colleges and jobs helped their students and employees to better understand the appropriate way to work with and assist individuals who have disabilities so that they feel more welcomed, accepted, and included. Like anyone, they want to be seen and heard and not ignored or pitied because of their conditions. Your post has helped me to see that there really needs to be a change in the curriculum and in my life in general because I have yet to be fully self-aware or alert to what many individuals with disabilities face in this world, and I hope to grow into a more knowledgable person as time goes on.

  14. Brittany, your post was extremely informative and allowed me to understand your experience. I was unfamiliar with the term ableism until today so thank you for accepting the call to educate and inform communities about the need for adequate supports and accommodations for our community members that have disabilities. I appreciate that you were able to see the mission that was in this experience. As an aspiring social worker, it helps me to develop a perspective as you have, see a problem, do the work to develop and offer solutions. It always amazes me how experiences that can potentially cause pain are the very situations that can provoke change. Well done in the excellent work you are doing Brittany keep going!

  15. I found this post emotional especially after reading how the author and other people on wheel chairs were “relegated to the back of the ballroom” during the 2016 NACSW convention in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also found the post encouraging seeing how the Christian author undertook the advocacy for the ablest community. I agree with the author’s reading and understanding of 1 Corinthians 12:13 that everybody is important in their own special ways. Indeed, Christians can carry this biblical verse as their faith to advocate for the rights of differently abled and discriminated groups.

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