Introduction

Elspeth Slayter, MSW, MA, PhD

Lisa Johnson, MSW, PhD

Co-Editors

Given the high prevalence of disability worldwide (World Health Organization, 2023), it is important for practitioners to be prepared to effectively and respectfully engage with disabled people and disability communities[1] (Slayter, Kattari, Yakas, et al. 2023). We set out to develop a peer-reviewed, edited, open access textbook that would provide social work students and practitioners, and those in other helping professions, with free, accessible information and resources to support their preparation for work with disabled people and communities using a framework informed by critical theoretical approaches and the disability justice movement’s ten principles (Sins Invalid, 2019).

A key goal of this book is to introduce an intersectionality-informed and critically culturally competent approach to anti-oppressive social work practice with disabled people, primarily in the United States. To do this, we present an innovative practice model for social workers to use in their work with disabled people and communities, which is incorporated throughout the book in a variety of practice considerations. The main themes woven throughout our practice model are intersectionality theory, critical cultural competence and anti-oppressive practice.

An intersectional perspective focuses on the mutually determined influence of multiple, intersecting social identities on our lived experiences within systems of privilege and oppression (Cho et al., 2013). Moving beyond basic cultural competence, “critical cultural competence: notes that “awareness, knowledge, and skills alone are inadequate” (Danso, 2015, p. 574). We believe that critical cultural competence is about “social workers’ ability to engage in high-level action-oriented, change-inducing analyses of culture and diversity-related phenomena” (Danso, 2015, p. 574). This concept also recognizes issues such as intersectionality, power differentials in the worker-client relationship, and examination of one’s social location or social position held in society based on social characteristics (Lusk et al.,,2017). Anti-oppressive practice involves interrogating institutions and structures to recognize how even when social workers are trying to do good, we can replicate bad (Baines, 2011). Our full practice model is explained, with a helpful case example, in chapter two.

In honoring these frameworks, we also set out to present the experiences of a range of disabled people with different social identities in various service areas as a way to inform better social work practice, and to do so using the social model of disability as our primary lens for understanding the environment as disabling given the medicalization of disability in many social work textbooks. In addition to bringing disabled people’s stories about their experiences with social work to light, we accomplish this task by pulling together a team of authors who are practitioners, educators, researchers, and advocates with a range of social identities, including disability identities. When we speak of “disability identities,” we are referring to not only physical, medical, sensory disabilities but also neurodivergence, chronic illness, chronic pain, mental illness, madness, and so on.

Designed as a main textbook for social work courses at the bachelor’s and master’s level or for social work practitioners in the field, this work moves beyond a traditional medicalized and segregated approach (i.e., chapters organized around impairments) to the exploration of disability-specific populations, instead taking a more intersectional approach in discussing specific service areas and practice issues while weaving in stories about the lived experiences of disabled people with a range of social identities. These issues include parenting, mass incarceration, ableism, aging and employment, among many others.

Our book acknowledges difference and multisystemic privilege and oppression while also drawing readers’ attention to the importance of solidarity and allyship when it comes to meaningful social work practice with and social change for disabled people. In our work, we prioritize the voices of disabled people and their experiences with different parts of the health, education, justice and social service arenas. We hope this textbook’s structure and the theoretical frameworks it presents will make it a useful tool for educators, students, and practitioners in social work and other helping professions.

Finally, the cover of our book represents some of the important decisions we made in editing this volume. The cover consists of the accessible icon in black at the bottom corner of the 2021 version of the disability pride flag. The disability pride flag, which was designed by Ann Magill in collaboration with others, is set on a black background and has a diagonal band of five stripes of different colors oriented  from top left to bottom right. The flag has all the standard flag colors signifying that the disability community spans borders between states and nations. The black background symbolizes mourning and rage for victims of ableist violence and abuse. The diagonal orientation of the band represents “cutting across” the walls and barriers that separate the disabled from normate society, as well as light and creativity cutting through the darkness. The stripe colors represent the following disability identities: invisible and undiagnosed disabilities (white), physical disabilities (red), neurodivergence (gold), psychiatric disabilities (blue), and sensory disabilities (green). The different color stripes also represent the variety of disabled people’s experiences and needs, but the stripes are parallel to each other to illustrate unity among disabled people. We embrace the disability pride stance that comes along with the flag and take a strengths-based and empowerment-oriented approach to thinking about disability. Similarly, we use the accessible icon image over the flag in order to honor the disability community that made this icon in response to the more static and unempowered traditional wheelchair user symbol.

May this book be helpful to you as you work to develop and/or hone your disability lens for practice with the disability communities you connect with over the course of your career. We would love to hear from you (please email us at eslayter@salemstate.edu or ljohnson2@salemstate.edu) regarding your reactions to the book, areas you would like us to add or improve upon, and the ways in which you have used this book in practice.

References

Baines, D. (2011). An overview of anti-oppressive practice: Roots, theory, tensions. In D. Baines (Ed.), Doing anti-oppressive practice: Social justice social work (2nd ed., pp. 2-24). Fernwood Publishing.

Cho, S., Crenshaw, K. W., & McCall, L. (2013). Toward a field of intersectionality studies: Theory, applications, and praxis. Signs, 38(4), 785-810.

Danso, R. (2015). An integrated framework of critical cultural competence and anti-oppressive practice for social justice social work research. Qualitative Social Work, 14(4), 572-588.

Lusk, M., Terrazas, S., & Salcido, R. (2017). Critical cultural competence in social work supervision. Human Service Organizations: Management, Leadership & Governance, 41(5), 464-476.

Sins Invalid. (2019). Skin, tooth, and bone: The basis of movement is our people (2nd ed.). https://www.sinsinvalid.org/disability-justice-primer

Slayter, E. M., Kattari, S. K., Yakas, L., Singh, R. C. B., Goulden, A., Taylor, S., Wernick, L. J., Simmons, L. D., & Prince, D. (2023). Beyond Ramps, Curb Cuts, and Captions: A Call for Disability Justice in Social Work. Social Work, 68(1), 89–92. https://doi.org/10.1093/sw/swac045

World Health Organization (WHO). (2023). Disability. http://www.who.int/topics/disabilities/en/


  1. We use disability-first or identity-first language in keeping with current preferences of many in the disability community and the preference of one of the authors, who is disabled.

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Social work practice and disability communities: An intersectional anti-oppressive approach Copyright © by Elspeth Slayter; Lisa Johnson; Mallory Cyr; Michael Clarkson-Hendrix; Sandy Leotti; Sharyn DeZelar; Rose Singh; and Esther Son is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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