‘Our profession must be much more inclusive to disabled people’: a letter to the chief social workers

Social work prides itself on being anti-discriminatory but practitioner Vikki Walton-Cole tells chief social workers Isabelle Trowler, Mark Harvey and Fran Leddra there is much more to do in relation to disability

Symbol for a better inclusion. Hand turns dice and changes the word exclusion to inclusion.
Source: Fokussiert/Adobe Stock

By Vikki Walton-Cole

Today (3 December) marks the International Day of People with Disabilities and sits in the middle of UK Disability History Month (18 November to 20 December this year).

This year marks 25 years since passing of the Disability Discrimination Act (DDA), through which, for the first time, disabled people had rights in law to education, employment and to be free from discrimination. We have moved forwards in 25 years from where we were, but have we moved forwards enough?

The Equality Act 2010, which has replaced the DDA, is only enforceable if a disabled person has the funds and ability to bring a challenge to court and there are numerous means which can be used by employers, public services and society to not adhere to it.

In the UK, approximately 20% of working-age adults have a disability, many developing disabilities through adulthood. Only around 7% of disabled people use a wheelchair. Only half of disabled people are in employment as opposed to 80% of non-disabled adults (Office for National Statistics, figures for 2019) and nearly half of those households living in poverty have at least one disabled person in them (Joseph Rowntree Foundation, 2020).

Social work prides itself on being an anti-discriminatory and anti-oppressive profession. It is good to see that Social Work England and Ms Trowler have both recently responded to concerns over inequality raised by students. It is right that this needs to be looked at and considered, but I am concerned that disability will not be addressed alongside other dimensions of inequality.

‘Clear lack of understanding of disability’

There is a clear lack of understanding of disability through many parts of the profession. Person first language (for example, “person with disability”) is still being taught across universities, when the majority of disabled people in the UK reject this language, preferring identity first language (“disabled person”) in line with the social model of disability.

Social workers are in a unique position to be champions of the social model of disability and yet so often are working from the medical, tragedy and charity models of disability.”

In social work education, disabled people are discussed as people who receive social work input, not part of the social work profession. I found only two research articles that referenced disabled student social workers, and could not find any research on disabled social workers. Where are these research articles to inform our profession?

There are serious issues in some areas with reports of disabled students and social workers being discriminated against, and being refused placements, employment and progression within the profession. There is likely a link here with the continued underfunding of local authorities who, in some cases, try not to fund reasonable adjustments for disabled workers or, worse, push them towards leaving their jobs or the profession. This must end.

Disabled people are underrepresented in the profession and yet we have so much to offer as social workers. Social Work England’s initial guidance was that social workers must inform them of any new long-term conditions/disability. When I did this, soon after they started regulating the profession, they returned my enquiry with guidance on how to refer myself to fitness to practise! Whether my body works or not (in the same way as non-disabled people), it does not impact on my ability to be a good social worker. Thankfully Social Work England’s guidance is now clear that practitioners need only disclose conditions that affect their ability to practise safely and effectively and only where the practitioner cannot manage the condition in a way that enables them to perform their role. However, it is not good enough that Social Work England does not know the percentages of social workers with disabilities (to ensure fair representation) nor whether there is any discrimination in the referrals to fitness to practise.

Hopes for a more inclusive profession

My hopes are that we, as a profession, can become much more inclusive towards our colleagues and students.

As social workers, we can challenge the structural oppression of disabled people. If society was more accessible generally, disabled people would not have as many struggles. As it is, each day we have to fight for our existence in society, the workplace and this profession. Non-disabled social workers can become some of the allies disabled people need. Find organisations that are fighting for change, such as Disability Rights UK and Social Work Action Group, and join them. Make sure that disabled people’s voices are being heard on issues that affect us.

Our chief social workers can review the profession to ensure that we are inclusive of disabled social workers at all levels, that we are ensuring they flourish in their careers and that we are educating students about disabled colleagues as well as disabled people we work with and support. They can seek to reassure us that we will be included on issues of diversity within the profession moving forwards. They might even listen to some of us disabled social workers.

Myself? I will continue to speak out about being a disabled person and a disabled social worker. I plan to complete some of this research that is needed to ensure the equality of our disabled people within our profession. I aim to ensure that disabled people are integral people within this profession, its research and its decision making, and this moves social work towards progressive change.

Vikki Walton-Cole is a disabled, registered social worker, part-time wheelchair user, disabled activist and future researcher

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9 Responses to ‘Our profession must be much more inclusive to disabled people’: a letter to the chief social workers

  1. Lennon December 3, 2020 at 1:09 pm #

    My name is Lennon Jarman, I am a qualified Social Worker, registered with Social Work England, currently practicing in South Africa, but with a British Passport. I have over ten years experience in various fields. I have struggled even to get interviews. I wonder if this is as a result of me being a spastic quad

  2. Claire Cheskin December 3, 2020 at 1:28 pm #

    I graduated my BSc and was turned down as a trainee social worker because of disability. I then worked in a factory.

  3. Ian Merry December 4, 2020 at 12:21 pm #

    Does anyone else feels this is an appalling stain on social work practice in the 21st century.

    That in 50 years as a formal enterprise working with and, supposedly standing up for the most vulnerable, oppressed and discriminated against in society that social work organisations cannot even protect their own employees and prospective workers from discrimination. .

    What an expression of failure.

    I know from personal experiences over 37 years of social work that the above rings true.

    I feel that the two ticks kitemark and the words ‘positive about disabled people’ which employers frequently flaunt in recruitment, is a scam. Any social worker who tries to ask for “reasonable adjustments” in practice will normally get short shrift unless it’s something easy to provide like a special chair, after all most social workers are chained to their computer desks these days.

    In my last employment I came with one declared disabilty and left with two, the latter entirely caused by the employer. I was eventually dismissed on capability grounds in a situation of their own making.


  4. Beth December 4, 2020 at 3:44 pm #

    Thank you for writing this article, I think it raises some important questions.
    I wonder if lockdown is going to open more doors for those of with us with disabilities. It would seem more and more places have introduced home working, which was previously consider ‘impossible’ or ‘not a reasonable adjustment’. I know Social Worker jobs require home visits, but it might be easier for some people if home working was allowed outside of these visits. Maybe it will become more of the norm, instead of an exception.
    I’m looking forward to hearing about the research you’re going to be conducting.

  5. Shaun December 4, 2020 at 6:18 pm #

    I have been a qualified social worker for the past 13 years. My experience of disability awareness is nil and void. A lot is lip service and tokenism, I have dyslexia and had a social work manager ask me well is there a cure and does it go away ? The reality for me is that no one really cares dyslexia or not, sink or swim has been my experience of local authority employment. I often think who the hell is giving these organisations disability confident recognition it’s laughable.

  6. Laura Baxter December 5, 2020 at 1:17 pm #

    Thanks for raising awareness of the issues SW’s face from within the profession. It really is unacceptable that a profession that has the overall purpose of helping, supporting and improving the lives of the more vulnerable members of society cannot manage to accept and provide adequate support to their disabled colleagues.

    In general, over the last decade, the Tory Government have waged an underhanded and thinly veiled war on the vulnerable, deprived, chronically ill and disabled members of British society. It is certainly time for a change of attitude and a reminder of the laws in place to provide protection for those with disabilities

  7. Ernesto December 7, 2020 at 10:36 am #

    This is more complicated than the article suggests. We may want this sentence to be absolutely true – ‘Whether my body works or not (in the same way as non-disabled people), it does not impact on my ability to be a good social worker.’ However, if someone’s disability prevents social work duties from being carried out, such as home visits or the completion of work to needed standards, then who should take priority? Should the staff be prioritised so they can remain in work, or the people we are meant to serve? It’s quite a complicated and ethical argument. Reasonable adjustments are just that, ‘reasonable’, not at all costs.

    It’s a shame many articles on here obsess over discrimination and oppression instead of giving more weight to critical thought and reflection, which seem to be forgotten as part of the foundations of social work.

    • Shaun December 11, 2020 at 5:16 pm #

      What is reasonable Ernesto ? This is the point the employers are failing to understand what is a reasonable adjustment. This is the very fact why we will always need disability rights legislations because of attitudes like your own. There is always an excuse, or a cost or another reason why we can’t make a reasonable adjustment. I see society as the problem here and not the individual. What kind of profession are we ? When in the class room we preach anti-oppressive/discriminative practice, empowerment, and emancipation when in reality the very profession itself has little or no time for person’s of any difference. Sometimes it’s just about basic values, common decency and respect for other human beings. As the saying goes you come and try walking a mile in my shoes. You will experience rejection and damage to your self worth. And why ? Because your are different and may go about approaching your work in a different way or might need a bit more time to complete a task.

      Think about the bigger picture here, the governments wage war on running down the welfare state and tell people to get a job as you’re not disabled enough to be on benefits. Then when you fight your way through an unfair and unjust employment application process. You’re then met with additional barriers in the work place. We should try to welcome as much difference as possible into social work as the bigger picture is that society is made up of difference. Whether this be race, class, gender or disability. We cant really say we are inclusive when certain employers and groups cant accept anything out of what they perceive as the norm.

  8. Chris Sterry December 7, 2020 at 9:40 pm #

    An article telling how it is and then strengthened by the comments of Social Workers trying to work within the industry, but finding many problems.

    Social Workers go through years of training and obtaining required qualifications, but when they come into Local Authorities (LAs) are they allowed to do the job they have trained so hard for, I feel not.

    For within LAs social work is geared around systems, which at the best of times are a barrier to good social work, not counting the extremely large caseloads given to social workers.

    Unfortunately social workers are in the middle for they are directed by social work managers to work within the limitations of LAs systems and when go to their clients, their clients are wanting what these systems will not allow to be delivered, when legislation, which is also seriously deficient, says should be possible.

    As social workers know what is generally available, they do, when they should not, only put forward what they feel can reasonably be agreed by the system.

    Should the day ever come when clients wishes will be possible the full costs of Care Plans will not be known, for they have never been put forward to be costed.

    But funding for social care is a major problem and it has always been, but 10 years of austerity cuts on LAs was bad enough, but then came COVID-19 and the money available was even further distant from what is required.

    This is why all LAs are well over budget and some could go bankrupt and this all leads to a further deterioration of social care, making the most vulnerable even more so.

    In the next few years, without substantial Government funding for social care, LAs will reduce the number of social workers they employ, so they can balance their budgets, thereby increasing workloads for social workers even more, resulting in less choices granted for the persons in need of care. This at a time when needs are substantially increasing.

    Every aspect of social care is suffering not just in respects of Social Workers, but care homes, home care, respite, supported living , hospices, etc. Good quality care should always be delivered, but in many instances this is not so, for the care profession is desperately short of care workers. There are insufficient people coming to do care work, which is not surprising when the abysmal pay is taken into account with poor working conditions, working unsocial hours, etc.

    This leads, in some instances, in poor quality care being given and this is not picked up on CQC (Care Quality Commission) and LAs inspections.

    In fact, are these inspections done to the highest standards or are some organisation and poor practices allowed, so that the numbers of care organisations and care workers are not reduced further.

    If the delivery of poor quality care is not stopped, then the quality of care will diminish even further.

    Not a good analysis of care in the UK, but one that is desperately in need of improvement.

    Please support my petition, Solve the crisis in Social Care,


    This may not solve everything, but it will be a good start.