Having been diagnosed with bilateral hearing loss during my teens, when disability was viewed as a curse, I can personally attest that since the passage of the American with Disabilities Act (ADA) we have made some strides in addressing a lot of the misconceptions and lack of understanding of what constitutes access and accommodation. At the same time, as a social worker who has a disability, I know that much more can be done to empower and provide support for people with disabilities—but the necessary education has a long way to go.
For example, as a very active person who attends many functions both socially and in a professional capacity, I am frequently treated as an interloper because of my hearing loss or, if an accommodation is made, invariably it is to provide me with an American Sign Language (ASL) interpreter. This is unfortunate because ASL is often the only type of accommodation that is considered for deaf individuals, who actually have many different ways to communicate, including caption services and/or lip-reading, which is my particular method.
This lack of awareness of the range of ways people with hearing loss can communicate must change—because no one wants to attend a function just to sit on the sidelines. And this is just one of many, many examples of how a lack of information and awareness creates barriers for people with disabilities, even when people are well-intentioned—a quality that surely describes most social workers.
Here are a few basics to consider when planning an event.
- Always ask if an accommodation is required for people with disabilities and what type of accommodation is needed—don’t assume you know.
- It is not enough for a venue’s entrance to be wheelchair accessible. Make sure to look at bathrooms and interior passageways, flooring, seating, and steps to see if accommodations need to be arranged.
- Make all announcements in both audio and visual formats, to accommodate people with hearing or vision loss.
- Lighting is important. If your event is at a restaurant that has low lights, you may need to arrange additional lighting for people who are hearing impaired or deaf and rely heavily on their eyes to listen. In a dark environment they won’t be able to see what is being said.
- Large social areas should have induction loops to prevent background noise.
The need for greater awareness and education will only become more urgent as disability affects more and more people. According to the World Health Organization, about a billion people of the world’s population have some form of disability. With the rapid growth of an aging population that is subject to chronic health conditions, the number of people with disabilities will continue to grow as well. Yet people with disabilities continue to have less access to health care and to be at a higher risk of not receiving essential services than the general population.
As social workers we should be educated to identify services needed by people with disabilities so that we are in the best possible position to advocate for those services. Additionally, knowledgeable and compassionate social workers who are armed with accurate information about what people with disabilities actually need can help to improve the political and social efficacy of this population. With this in mind, in 2013 I approached the National Association of Social Workers about creating a disability task force.
The National Association of Social Workers
Founded in 1955, The National Association of Social Workers (NASW) New York City Chapter promotes professional standards for those committed to excellence in the field of social work. It is the largest organization representing social workers in the world, serving the five boroughs with 15 committees and task forces.
I initially met with Robert (Bob) Schachter, Executive Director of NASW-NYC. He was very supportive, but the challenge was finding likeminded members willing to play an active role, to assist in facilitating meetings and provide leadership and guidance, among other tasks. Bob was not only instrumental in finding two members who were willing to get involved, he took the time to meet with us to share perspectives and offer his support.
On March 30, two years after our initial conversation, the Disabilities Task Force launched under the auspices of NASW-NYC. With more than 25 people attending, representing various social work disciplines and organizations including the New York City Department of Education, HHC Bellevue, the Brooklyn District Attorney’s office, Columbia University and Independence Care System (ICS), the launch was a huge success. I am honored to be serving as one of three task force co-chairs.
NASW provided space and refreshments for our launch and NASW Vice President Candida Brooks Harrison offered encouraging opening remarks. Guest speaker Nancy Miller, CEO of VISIONS/Services for the Blind and Visually Impaired, supported our vision and goals. ICS Care Management Coordinator Sarah Sabiniano painted an excellent picture of the diversity of disability for everyone present. All told, our new task force received a tremendous show of support that evening and, in addition, from many people who could not attend but who took the time to send their good wishes. The photo above was taken at the event. Left to right are social worker Geet Jha, ICS team leader and social worker Andrea Spence, and myself.
The NASW-NYC Disabilities Task Force will increase and reinforce social workers’ knowledge about disabilities through workshops, panel discussions and other events. We believe that sharing information and raising awareness will lead to innovative ideas and solutions that will enable social workers to the provide quality support we know they want to offer when they work with people who have disabilities.
The committee meets quarterly, with the next meeting scheduled for July 13, 2015 at the NASW-NYC Chapter, 50 Broadway, NY 10004 10th Fl. at 6:00pm. You may contact the committee by email at email@example.com.