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