Social Work, Othering and Disability

Social Worker Essays

People who experience a disability are some of the most vulnerable and marginalized groups within our society. This essay will explain what disability is and what it means to have a disability. Disability can often be seen as a form of social deviance, and so, because of this, the disability community can be othered and excluded within mainstream society. This essay will give examples of how othering occurs and how othering could be avoided, when working as a social worker with people with disabilities. Social workers have an extremely important role in the lives of people with a disability.

Social workers are often a person with a disability’s voice and advocate and they need to set an example for the rest of the community and its members so that people with a disability are treated with respect, dignity and worth. Having a disability can be defined as a person that experiences physical and intellectual, weaknesses and vulnerabilities, the World Health Organization (2012), defines a disability as “An umbrella term, covering impairments, activity limitations, and participation restrictions.

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An impairment is a problem in body function or structure; an activity limitation is a difficulty encountered by an individual in executing a task or action; while a participation restriction is a problem experienced by an individual in involvement in life situations”. Disability is seen world wide throughout many cultures and treated very differently. Within Australia 2-3% of the population have an intellectual disability, which is more than 100,000 people in Victoria (CDDH, 2008).

Within Australia, people with disabilities receive a range of services and different types of funding and payments depending on their disability. People with disabilities are slowly becoming more accepted and tolerated within Australian society, however, at the same time, they are generally an oppressed group who are socially excluded. Stainton, Chenoweth, & Bigby (2010), have stated that people with disabilities remain one of the most marginalised groups in society with poverty, exclusion, and a constant struggle to be seen as equal, valued citizens.

If we look back over history, the disability sector has come a long way, although, they still have a journey to undertake to get to a place of social justice. I feel that people within the community are still very afraid and ignorant toward people with a disability. They become afraid because it is the unknown and the unpredictable. Disability can be seen as a form of social deviance, and this is what may create negative attitudes within different communities. Another view is the ‘pity’ view.

People with disabilities and their carers are pitied. This is also a negative way to perceive the disability community as it reinforces that people with disabilities are below or beneath other members of the community and it places carers in a role of acting superhuman because they care for and manage the person with the disability. When I put myself in a caring role to work with people with disabilities, I feel an overwhelming sense of the work is never done.

I do not mean this in a negative way, I feel that people with a disability are extremely subordinated within their community and are not treated with enough respect and dignity, so I as a worker, feel that it would be my job to provide social inclusion for the person with a disability. Providing social justice in a holistic sense could do this, and this would be a difficult job as not all policies and legislation flow in the social justice direction for people with a disability.

I feel that working with people with disabilities would be a rewarding and heart wrenching position all at the same time. However, It makes me feel elated to think that I could make a difference in the life of someone who is vulnerable and oppressed. My reaction to people with a disability comes from a place of watching others experiences. One of my closest friends had a sibling with a disability and now has a child of her own with a disability.

I have seen both her mother’s and her struggles with oppression, subordination and exclusion, their fights for services and funding and their struggles with day-to-day life. I was an involved member of their family and so their struggles touched me deeply, the fight for social justice and acceptance is one that will take a very long time within the Australian community; nonetheless, it is already a personal value of mine. My values are now ones of equality for all, social inclusion, respect, and dignity and worth, and social justice for all.

People with a disability are in many ways othered within our society. Othering was expressed by Canales (2010) as, power within relationships for domination and subordination, with the potential consequences of being alienated, marginalized, decreased opportunities, internalized oppression, and excluded. Canales (2010) also suggested that “exclusionary othering is often influenced by the visibility of one’s otherness and that these stigmatizing features that are immediately apparent, construct one’s identity as other (p.19)…

Their otherness is signified by their relational differences; when compared to the ‘ordinary’ and ‘natural’ attributes of persons perceived as socially acceptable (p. 19)”. Othering affects people with a disability in many different ways. Othering creates social isolation and exclusion. It can be very difficult for a person with a disability to go and have lunch at a cafe by him or herself for example. The person with the disability may not be able to read a menu, but may be able to pick a meal from a group of photos.

They are also in a very vulnerable position to be taken advantage of. However, if the cafe provided social inclusion for people with disabilities, they would provide wheel chair ramps, have staffs that are trained in different types of communication and have menus that reflected equal accessibility for all to read, amongst many other things. A simple exercise like, going to a cafe for lunch, is taken for granted by people without a disability; nonetheless, it is a social community experience, which many people with a disability are excluded from.

Having inclusive and accessible communities is a real need for people with a disability. At the macro level, policy and legislation needs to not only speak about social inclusion, however, governments need to implement the strategies within the society. Society has a tendency to try to manage and control the lives of people with a disability (Logan and Chung, 2001); instead, they need to be focusing more on supporting, educating, and providing services that are more accessible.

Educating is probably the most important point here, as knowledge is power, not only for the people with a disability but also for the rest of mainstream society. If more people who are educated about disabilities, our society will generate greater the tolerance and acceptance levels. As a social worker, training and education about disabilities are very important when working within this discipline. It is a field that is specialized and education within this field should revolve around social inclusion and community participation.

When a social worker works with a client with a disability, it is imperative that they understand how to engage with this person in a way that makes the client feel valued and worthy. As do social workers have this same view when working with clients from culturally diverse backgrounds. When you work with a person with a disability, you are their support, ally, advocate, expert and their gate-keeper (Stainton, Chenoweth & Bigby, 2010). Therefore, it is very important then, that you have the right tools to build a strong rapport with the client and give them the services they deserve.

As a social worker we need give consideration to the time and pace of communication (Ellem and Wilson, 2010), have a positive attitude and convey this through appropriate body language, this shows respect to the person of whom you are speaking with. We also need to address a person with a voice tone consistent with their age and make sure the client maintains a central place in your discussions (CDDH, 2008). Social worker should also develop interviewing, assessment and recording practices that give precedent to the worldview of service users (Bigby 2007, cited in Ellem and Wilson 2010).

These are just some ways to socially include a person with a disability, or any person for that matter, within your services. Nevertheless, there is always another side. Social workers can effortlessly also socially exclude people with disabilities. Dorries, & Rahn, (2006), exclaim that using language that increases stigmatization such as ‘retard’ can be quite demeaning, not helping service users access information and services and excluding people from participation in decisions, can project ‘othering’ and can leave a person feeling humiliated, undignified and degraded.

Being excluded from society or parts of it can have a flow on effect in a persons life. Social exclusion and being ‘othered’ within your own community can lead to social isolation, barriers for learning and poverty, if we think of exclusion from employment. All of these factors could then affect a person’s mental and physical state, their relationships or their employment. I feel that it is not people with a disability who need to be mainstreamed or normalized into society, however, quite the opposite, society needs to grow, change and adjust to the different needs of its citizens. Othering can be very isolating and exclusionary and it created stigmatizations for the ‘other’. This is an unequal way to treat another person and it should not be tolerated. Everyone deserves social justice and the right to be treated with dignity and respect and so communities need to be educated, services need to adjust and inclusion policies need to be implemented.


  • Stainton, T, Chenoweth, L & Bigby, C. (2010). Social Work and Disability: An Uneasy Relationship. Australian Social Work, Volume 63, Issue 1, pages 1-3
  • Ellem, K & Wilson, J. (2010). Special Issue: On Social Work’s Contribution to Disability Policy and Practice Around the World. Life Story Work and Social Work Practice: A Case Study With Ex-Prisoners Labelled as Having an Intellectual Disability. Australian Social Work, Volume 63, 1, 67-82
  • CDDH. (2008). Centre for Developmental Disability Health Victoria: Working with people with intellectual disabilities in healthcare settings. Viewed on 5/9/2012, retrieved from: http://www. cddh. monash. org/assets/documents/working-with-people-with-intellectual-disabilities-in-health-care. pdf
  • Canales, K. (2010). Othering: Difference Understood?: A 10-Year Analysis and Critique of the Nursing Literature. Advances in Nursing Science. Volume 33(1), p 15–34.
  • Haller, B, Dorries, B ; Rahn, J. (2006). Media labeling versus the US disability community identity: a study of shifting cultural language. Disability ; Society, V21, 1, 61-75.
  • Logan, B ; Chung, D (2001). Current social work practice in the fields of mental illness and intellectual disability: Changing service approaches to people with a disability? , Australian Social Work, 54:3, 31-42
  • WHO. (2012). Disabilities. Viewed on 5/9/2012. Retrieved from: http://www. who. int/topics/disabilities/en/