Social Work and Disability

Peter Simcock and Dr. Rhoda Castle introduce their new book, Social Work and Disability, now out from Polity Books. (1,040 words)

0745670199Literature focusing on social work with disabled people, particularly those with physical and sensory impairments, is relatively limited, and so an email from the publisher Polity Press enquiring if such a text would be welcome was met with great enthusiasm. We didn’t realise then, that we would be the authors of that text, especially when faced with other demands on our time, not least PhD study and our ‘day jobs’. However, a number of things motivated us to write this book. First of all, we have both observed some inspiring social work practice with disabled people, and this is an area of work we would like to promote among the practitioners of the future. Although people should not be defined purely in terms of their impairments, there can be variation between the restrictions that people with different atypical physical attributes will face, and variation again between their experience and that of people with learning disabilities. As literature focusing on social work with people with physical and sensory impairments is particularly sparse, this was a gap we sought to address. However, despite this primary focus on disability associated with physical and sensory impairment, we have attempted to take a holistic approach, which recognises that people with learning disabilities may also have physical impairments.

We also hoped to challenge the assumption that disability affects only service users, and conversely that social workers are invariably non-disabled. Clearly this simplistic dualism, an example of an ‘us and them’ approach, is both unhelpful and inaccurate. Thirdly, while the social model of disability has informed much good practice, our teaching experience highlighted that it is not always fully understood by students. Therefore, we were keen to produce a text that would help students to enhance their understanding. The lived experience of disabled people has been essential to the development of the social model, and we have been privileged to work with disabled social workers, service users and carers who have offered their expertise to the students and staff of social work degree programmes. The experience that they have shared both with us and with our students has been invaluable. Therefore, the book begins with Helen Burrell’s experience of disability and professional interventions throughout her life. This first chapter illustrates some of the issues that appear later in the book; we hope that by addressing these initially through lived experience readers will be able to negotiate the material that appears in later chapters more easily.

Helen’s experience provides the opening chapter of Part I of the book – ‘Perspectives: Understanding disability’ – where we examine how disability is, and continues to be, defined, explained and understood. We then move on to consider theory and models, lifecourse perspectives on disability, and law and policy. Whilst our approach to theories and models is underpinned by the social model, we also engage in some detail with the way this model has been critiqued and developed, as we believe this has particular relevance for social work. We consider the knowledge that can be gained from taking a lifecourse perspective on disability, before offering a critical analysis of the interface between law, policy and social work in relation to practice with disabled people. This includes contemporary legal frameworks, such as the Care Act 2014, the Social Services and Well-Being (Wales) Act 2014 and the Children and Families Act 2014, and highlights the importance of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

Social work practitioners who gave us their views while we were working on the book emphasised the impact of inequality and oppression on disabled service users. Part II of the book reflects this concern, and includes chapters which explore the research on inequality, oppression and diversity, and the place of social work in challenging these. These chapters focus on the need for social workers to consider the impact of characteristics such as race, gender and sexual orientation, and the importance of intersectionality. However, we also consider disability itself as a dimension of human diversity, by exploring issues such as discrimination, inequalities in employment, victimhood of crime, access to education, debt and poverty, and access to health and other public services.

Rhoda Castle and Peter Simcock 17may16

The authors at the book launch at King’s College London, 17 May 2016

While we have drawn out implications for social work in Parts I and II of the book, it is Part III which focuses specifically on social work functions, roles, processes and practice with disabled people. Each chapter in this part highlights strategies for best practice, starting the importance of strong communication and engagement skills in this area of specialist practice. We focus on social work practice with disabled children, exploring core functions such as assessment and intervention, and also practice with looked after disabled children, before moving on to the social work role with disabled adults, in an increasingly personalised system of adult social care. Arguing that social work has a central role in safeguarding both children and adults, we also explore this function in the context of disability settings, with a particular focus on the concepts of risk and vulnerability. We end Part III by examining collaborative practice in this field, before offering a final conclusion to the book, drawing together some of the key issues.

The introduction of care management from the 1990s onwards led to a narrowing of the social work role and a focus on gatekeeping. Given the critique of social work by some disability activists and academics, and the introduction of self-directed support, there has been speculation about a much reduced role for social workers, particularly in adult social care. We consider that many criticisms of social work by disabled people have been justified, and welcome the introduction of self-directed support. However, we believe that social work can and does contribute to the promotion of disabled people’s rights and the securing of positive outcomes in their lives. If social work is to regain the confidence of disabled people, we believe it needs to broaden its remit beyond the individual to engage with the barriers that restrict lives. We suggest that positive practice requires the following: a focus on human rights; critical reflection on the critique of social work by the disability movement; full understanding of the barriers that disable people with impairments; and partnership working with disabled people and their organisations, as equal allies.

Peter Simcock is Senior Lecturer in Social Work at Staffordshire University and Dr Rhoda Castle is Associate Lecturer in Social Work at Derby University.

Peter Simcock and Rhoda Castle presented a seminar on their new book on 17 May 2016 as part of the Social Care Workforce Research Unit’s Social Work Seminar series.

A version of this blog was originally published on the Polity Books Website: