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A Long Way to Go
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A Long Way to Go
Disabilities, Social Work, and Non-Profit Agencies

Shelley Akabas, Ph.D., MBA, Director, Center for Social Policy and Practice in the Workplace, Columbia University School of Social Work

June 2009


An estimated 54 million Americans qualify as individuals with disabilities under the definition of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Among all marginalized groups, individuals with disabilities may experience the greatest level of discrimination of any marginalized group, particularly in relation to opportunities in the labor market. Although not all individuals with disabilities have visible impairments, many do. Look around the social agency world. Where are the individuals with disabilities? Many of them are the recipients of social work services. But social work, so dedicated to diversity, so committed to social justice and human rights (including the right to employment opportunity for all), has all but excluded individuals with disabilities from its labor force.

Talk with any social worker with a visible disability and one is likely to uncover an experience of discrimination. A Columbia graduate, with severe mobility problems from childhood rheumatoid arthritis, testified to rejection at agency after agency after she received her MSW degree. A totally bilingual, Spanish speaking clinician, she had expected to have little difficulty securing a job providing therapeutic mental health services. Although she eventually found employment, when asked for a comment she told the author, “Please do not see us as ‘clients,’ just see and accept us as peers. We have the same education, skills and devotion to our profession, if only you’d let us in.” The author is familiar with another wheelchair user- a graduate from Hunter, who is also bilingual in Spanish, who has been looking for a job for eight months while agencies are clamoring for Spanish speaking staffers. When she arrives for an interview, granted in response to a resume sent concerning an advertised job opening, (she is also a summa cum laude graduate from college and passed the licensing exam immediately after graduation), she reports invariably being met by comments like, “I didn’t expect someone in a chair,” and then is asked many personal questions rather than about her abilities as a social worker. She has yet to receive a job offer or even a second interview.

The situation is even more extreme for individuals with mental health conditions. There is a sense in which practitioners do not want to see individuals with mental health conditions as professional colleagues. The “we” and “they” divide was painfully apparent in a research project of the Workplace Center of Columbia University School of Social Work when we examined the issues around the integration of peers (persons whose contribution to the treatment team results from their own experience in the mental health system rather than from any professional training) into mental health treatment teams. Though prior research findings indicate that the outcome for recipients of mental health service is improved when teams include peers compared with treatment teams that do not, social workers at the agencies to which we offered consultation around the issue of peer integration treated peer employees as “patients,” rejected sharing charts with them, and were wary of including them in staff meetings. Furthermore, employing agencies rarely had HR policies that were consistently applied to their employees regardless of status.

A possible explanation for the pervasive lack of employment of individuals with disabilities in the social agency community emerged for the author during another research project at the Workplace Center, this one designed to clarify the response of employers to individuals with disabilities. A focus group of HR specialists in competitive for-profit businesses was convened to determine their interest in hiring individuals with disabilities as part of their general search for diversity in the work force. They were all too happy to find qualified applicants with disabilities. A similar group of HR specialists in not-for-profit settings, hypothesized to engender even more interest in identifying candidates with disabilities, was convened. The not-for-profit HR managers retreated to a position of avoiding such hires, claiming that they were, “accountable to the public and other funders to maximize productivity and could not afford to hire individuals with disabilities who are likely to be less productive than other applicants.” Their prejudiced attitudes informed their discriminatory behavior. Somehow there is a disconnect between our professional values and our deeds.

We might well ask why this is so and what can we do to change the situation. First, let us agree that the foregoing is not universally so. There are, of course, social workers with disabilities who are successfully employed and there are social agencies that actively recruit professionals whose experiences mirror the conditions and circumstances of their clients including individuals with disabilities. I am reminded of the blind student with a seeing eye dog who wanted to become a hospital social worker. It was not easy to find a willing department but she was finally accepted for a field placement. (Seeing eye dogs are allowed in all hospital settings by law.) Assigned to the oncology unit, the dog proved to be a “co-therapist.” Difficult dialogues proved easier when they could begin with a discussion of the dog and her service.

There are practical actions that can be taken. Individuals with disabilities can be specifically mentioned in an agency’s diversity statement. A social agency can model itself as a learning organization and invite individuals with disabilities to share their experiences so that staff can become more comfortable interacting with people of difference. An inventory of the physical environment of the agency can be undertaken, thereby spotlighting the needs of individuals with disabilities and providing a forum for discussion of their employment. Active recruitment can be undertaken by contacting workforce development organizations that are likely to serve job seekers with disabilities. Employees who become disabled can be encouraged to remain in employment. As the baby boomers among social workers age, we will have increasing call to provide accommodation at the workplace to maintain skilled professionals in their jobs. The issue can be discussed in staff meetings and suggestions solicited concerning achieving greater diversity among employees. We should and can do better.

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