April 2018

Sunday, February 7, 2016


Last week during the break in the middle of a three-hour policy class, the instructor from next door came in to introduce herself to me and to say that she'd heard I wasn't getting along with a student in the class. She told me to come next door for support any time. 

She intended to be kind--and had gone out of her way to support me, someone she doesn't know--but I felt talked about (and not in that good way), and I felt misunderstood. 

I'm not sure where the misunderstanding, if that's what it was, came from, so I'm sending this entry out to the world and sharing it with allies for disability justice at the school. 

I assume the student she was referring to was the student who was disconcertingly able-ist a couple of weeks ago (see last blog entry). However, this student had come to talk with me the next week, and I believe we came to respect and understand one another. 

I felt misunderstood because I thought that the offer of support was in order to ease a personal insult. Supporting me in this school doesn't mean giving me someone to talk to. It means providing an education so that people who get their MSWs recognize and challenge able-ism. 

I've been working with a team since June 2013 to establish that there currently is no education about people with disabilities in the UW SSW and to strategize for introducing this education. 

So much about the event in class that day and the follow-up the next week reinforced how urgent this work is. 

This is a policy class for people who plan to go into health or mental health social work. Yet as far as I could tell, only one other student recognized blatant able-ism about people with mental illness at the time, , one spoke about generally inadequate civil rights education in the school the next week, and two students asserted that next week that they hadn't thought the language was so bad. 

Even the instructor seemed to want to distance herself from challenging the offense. After the discussion, she looked straight at me and said, "Is that okay?" If it had been, she had just undermined its okayness by indicating that the problem was my personal problem and not a communal one.  

She tried her best. I suspect everyone involved did. But the problem is not an individual one. The problem is a school one: an environment and a curriculum that reinforces rather than challenges a paradigm that those of us with disabilities (physical, emotional, and mental) lead lives that are less meaningful than those who are temporarily-abled. 

Not only do I spend much of my time in a school that, to my great surprise, neither understands nor teaches disability justice, but I spend much of the rest of my time in an able-ist world. Most of the people I encounter are thoughtful and remarkably aware, but doctors and social workers and so forth have at times thought they understood what I needed in my life more than I did. Because they sometimes have power over me in our society's support structure, their able-ism does more than hurt my feelings: it impacts the power I have over my own life.

I'm privileged in a lot of ways and am generally able to advocate for my right to make decisions about my life, but it's a constant battle for me, and I wonder about those without so much privilege or support. 

These are the people that the UW's School of Social Work's Mission Statement purports to prioritize, as it proclaims on its website: "As members of the University of Washington School of Social Work, we commit ourselves to promoting social justice for poor and oppressed populations and enhancing the quality of life for all."  

These two days in class reinforced for me the urgency of addressing able-ism in this school. If the progressive, well-educated people who will be clinicians, directors, policy-makers and academicians don't even recognize the unjust culture that those of us with disabilities deal with every day, how will the world--or at even one little part of the world--change?

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