Ableism In Social Work: Working Toward Inclusion – Oct. 5, 2017 #MacroSW Chat

By @TheMattSchwartz – Matthew L. Schwartz, #MacroSW Contributor


Chat archive now available!

nothing about us without usRicardoLevinsMoralesImage: Ricardo Levins Morales



The National Association of Social Workers’ slogan for its 2017 Social Work Month campaign was, “Social Workers Stand Up!”

Social Workers stand up with the words "Social workers" in red lettters on top of "stand". The 'd' in stand points up in an arrow shape- this is in green-blue letters.
NASW Social Work Month 2017 logo










For me, this slogan highlighted the need to address the use of ableist language and ableism within our profession.


WASHINGTON, DC – JUNE 22: U.S. Capitol Police remove protesters from in front of the office of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) inside the Russell Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill, on June 22, 2017 in Washington, DC. Members of a group with disabilities were protesting the proposed GOP health care plan that was unveiled today. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)






Many social workers cannot stand up (though they can certainly advocate).







"Social Worker" is signed by a man against green background, with the words social worker superimposed.
Source: Sign with Robert



Additionally, many social workers cannot speak out, though they can definitely protest using Sign Language or other means of communication.




The path to professional licensure for those with disabilities has many barriers. Inclusion of social workers with disabilities, in general, is lacking (as is Disability training and education for social work students as part of the core course curriculum) and this requires a Macro level response. Please join us as we discuss various perspectives of what it means to be a Disabled Social Worker or a Disabled Social Work Student, while we examine systemic barriers and biases within the profession.

Social workers and social work students with physical and visible disabilities face numerous barriers: from ableism in hiring and management practices to buildings and workplaces that aren’t up to ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) code.

In addition to the barriers above, there are a host of other complications, both in agencies and from colleagues, ranging from a disbelief that the social worker even has a disability to an outright refusal to provide accommodations because the worker “looks” fine.

Deaf social workers (who often identify as a linguistic minority rather than disabled, but still fall under the ADA) often have trouble finding both field placements as well as supervision should they complete an MSW program, limiting their ability to move forward with licensing. Agencies are often unwilling to hire interpreters due to misunderstanding the role of the interpreter, misunderstanding HIPAA implications, or simply because they don’t want to bear the cost of hiring an interpreter to work alongside the Deaf social worker.

Ableist language and assumptions abound in printed material and agency policies, and even in some Schools of Social Work. While it is incumbent upon us all to create change, we must also do so while keeping in mind the slogan that has been chanted, signed, and taped to the back of wheel chairs and the front of walkers at protests around the country since the start of the Disability Rights Movement: “Nothing About Us Without Us!”

Host: Pat Shelly of @UBSSW.  Stephen Cummings @spcummings will be on the @OfficialMacroSW handle.

Discussion questions:

  1. Do you think the NASW campaign slogan, “Social Workers Stand Up,” is ableist? What better, more inclusive slogan would you use?
  2. What barriers for people with disabilities have you learned of or experienced as a social worker? Have you worked with any colleagues with disabilities that you know of? Consider, too, the barriers you see existing for those with disabilities in the Field Education component of MSW education.
  3. How can social work programs & agencies support Deaf and hard of hearing clinicians? What are some issues involved in supervision of our Deaf and hard or hearing coworkers that is necessary to receiving advanced licensure?
  4. What intersectional issues and barriers do you see within the Disabled community and other communities? What about Disabled People of Color? What can we do to tear these barriers down?
  5. How can we help our workplaces (and ourselves!) avoid ableist language in
    -social media,
    -policies and procedures, or
    -marketing of our services – brochures, illustrations, etc?
  6.  If you are disabled, how would you like to be supported? As social workers, how can we support our disabled colleagues?


  • Goldberg, M., Hadas-Lidor, N., & Karnieli-Miller, O. (2014). From Patient to Therapatient: Social Work Students Coping With Mental Illness. Qualitative Health Research, 25(7), 887-898. doi:10.1177/1049732314553990
  • But You Don’t Look Sick  Website on Invisible Disabilities. Resources, Essays & Community. Home of the “Spoon Theory.”
  • Elena Mazza (2015) Experiences of Social Work Educators Working With Students With Psychiatric Disabilities or Emotional Problems, Journal of Social Work Education, 51:2, 359-378. doi:10.1080/10437797.2015.1012935
  • Neudel, E. (Director). (2011). Lives Worth Living [Motion picture on DVD]. United States of America: Storyline Motion Pictures.
    Documentary on the Disability Rights Movement in the United States of America
  • Sheridan, M. A., White, B. J., & Mounty, J. L. (2010). Deaf and Hard of Hearing Social Workers Accessing Their Profession: A Call to Action. Journal of Social Work in Disability & Rehabilitation, 9(1), 1-11. doi:10.1080/15367100903524091
  • National Center of Disability and Journalism Style Guide


Matt stands with hands on a rollator. Sign on front of the rollator says, "Nothng About Us Without Us." MAtt is wearing a short-sleeved dark greyTshirt with "mytranshealth" in white lettering on front, and a pattern of puzzle pieces form a grid around the words.
Matthew L. Schwartz at a protest against Medicaid cuts, at U.S. Representative Chris Collins’ Office in Western New York, July 6, 2017

Matthew L. Schwartz, MBA is a disabled disability rights activist & graduate student at the University of Buffalo School of Social Work where he will be receiving his MSW in May 2018.

An American-Israeli dual citizen, Matthew is a veteran of the Israel Defense Forces where he served for 37 months, being honorably discharged as a Non-Commissioned Officer & Commander with the rank of Staff Sergeant in 2011. He was inducted as a lifetime member into Delta Mu Delta – the International Business Honors Society, completing his MBA in 2014 at the University of Phoenix.

Presently he is completing his MSW Clinical Field Placement at the Buffalo State College Counseling Center, and works as a Domestic Violence Counselor for Haven House at Child & Family Services in Buffalo, NY. He is the Co-founder & Director of FoodGnomes.  A mobile food pantry (any car can become a pantry), Food Gnomes operates on a simple one-question format “are you hungry?” If the answer is “yes,” then the Gnomes provide food, no questions asked. It is entirely volunteer-staffed.


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