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Social Work Education on Disabilities Is Lacking
By Miriam Edelman

People with disabilities represent 27% of the US population, yet most social work programs have little disability-related curriculum. According to Matthew Bogenschulz, a professor at Virginia Commonwealth, there’s a dearth of disability content in the social work curriculum for a variety of reasons. Accreditation standards, for example, he says, “do not directly speak to disability issues. In order for disability issues to gain more attention in our curricula, standards around disability inclusion and antiableist, disability-competent practice would be very helpful.” He adds that since there’s little data about the number of students and faculty with disabilities in social work education, it’s difficult to justify more inclusive policies or accreditation standards. Since very few faculty members have experience and expertise in disabilities, Bogenschutz says, students and faculty are not consistently exposed to disability-related content. This lack of expertise yields “little opportunity for students to seek careers supporting people with disabilities.”

Furthermore, existing disability content is not uniform across social work schools. According to Bogenschutz, disability content can vary tremendously across schools and the same courses (taught by different professors) because there are no disability-content standards. Since social work teachers do not frame mental health and other issues as being connected to disability, many chances to discuss disability are not taken. “This lack of attention to disability leaves students lacking critical knowledge, skills, and tools for responding to the needs of people with disabilities, which is hugely problematic, given the large percent of Americans with a disability,” he says.

Disability-related content is crucial, as almost every social worker will regularly work with clients with disabilities. Even if social workers do not work in a disability-related organization, they still might have clients with visible and invisible disabilities. Without proper training, they may not be able to provide adequate assistance.

If social work students lack access to disability-related classes, they can still be exposed to knowledge about disabilities at school, for example through field placements related to disabilities. Many students and social workers learn about disabilities through experience, such as internships or jobs. But because there’s a learning curve to developing awareness about the necessary services for this population, learning on the job is insufficient to help individuals adequately assist people with disabilities.

Social work students can also create or join disability-related student organizations, for example, the Columbia School of Social Work’s Disability Awareness Caucus, which describes itself as “a space for all students to gather, discuss, connect, seek support, advocate, teach, and learn about issues impacting dis/abled persons as it relates to social work.”

A goal of The Council on Disability and Persons With Disabilities, which is part of the Council on Social Work Education’s Commission for Diversity and Social and Economic Justice, is to “include social, political, and economic matters involving disability and individuals with disabilities in the framework of social work education.” In 2018, the Council on Disability and Persons With Disabilities developed the Curricular Resource on Issues of Disability and Disability-Competent Care in collaboration with the Council on Social Work Education. The guide frames disabilities against social work values, such as service and social justice, and provides educational resources and recommendations for social work schools.

Top-ranked University of Michigan’s School of Social Work is an example of several programs that provides disabilities-related education. Its Online Certificate in Disability Inclusion and Accessible Design is meant to provide skills that should be applied “with all systems and in all settings.” Through this hybrid program consisting of asynchronous video lectures and a conversation with the lead instructor, students learn about ableism, disability inclusion, racism, microaggressions, “circles of friends,” relevant public policy, accessibility, counseling individuals with disabilities, aging issues, caregiving, and other pertinent topics. Students can earn continuing education hours for this certificate.

It’s crucial to improve disabilities content in social work education and apply a strength-based approach. This enhanced education will allow social workers to help people with disabilities at all levels—from micro to mezzo to macro/policy.

— Miriam Edelman is a policy professional in Washington, D.C. She interned/worked for the U.S. Senate and the U.S. House of Representatives for about five years.