The Social Work Lens

20141026_132638 The North Carolina State Fair just recently wrapped up, and let me tell y’all, it was a hoot! Fried foods that never should have been dipped in a vat of hot oil, amusement rides with dubious safety requirements, and disproportional financial burdens placed on poor and disabled folks—

Alright. Re-do. This post isn’t about the Fair. It’s about what I call the “Social Work Lens” or “Why has everyone at the dinner table stopped talking since I brought up structural injustice.”

Let me give you a little background. My field placement is with an Assertive Community Treatment Team. We provide wrap-around health, mental health, and case management services for people with severe and persistent mental illness (schizophrenia, bipolar, and the like). This past week, we took a group of clients to the Fair as part of a psychosocial rehabilitation outing. Like many agencies, organizations, and families, we saw this as an opportunity to encourage participation in an event ostensibly open to all, including those with mental, physical, and/or development disabilities.

During the outing, it quickly became apparent that this was not the case. One of my clients had a mobility limitation that needed to be addressed early in the outing. There were three little white tents at the Fair where you could rent a wheelchair and/or electric scooter for the day if needed.

20141026_125907Here’s the catch: wheelchairs were $15 and scooters were $35. Two of the three tents were located by the gates next to handicap parking. The other tent was located far away on the other side of the fairgrounds. Now, while I can applaud the organizers of the Fair for some semblance of universal design, it stops after one or two claps: 1) The rental costs disproportionally burden those with mobility issues who wish to attend the Fair, and 2) locating the tents near handicap parking is all and good, but what about those people who do not own a car and/or don’t have handicap stickers? The messages potentially communicated is that if you’re disabled, you’re a burden so you have to pay more; if you’re poor, you don’t fit the mold for what disability looks like, so don’t bother coming.

The example above is only a microcosm of the disproportionate burdens societal, political, and economic systems place on many of the people with which we work as social workers. I bring up this case not so much to decry the Fair as source of structural injustice (quite frankly, I’m more worried about affordable housing, comprehensive physical and mental healthcare coverage, supportive employment placements, decriminalization of mental illness, etc.) as to illustrate one of the gifts a good social work education provides: an ability to recognize, name, and push back against injustice no matter the circumstance. It’s this Social Work Lens which makes our profession uniquely prepared to rally in solidarity with those affected by systems of oppression in order to fight towards collective liberation. It doesn’t make us quite popular at dinner parties, it may alienate us from particular friend groups, and it’s not a job for the weary. Nonetheless, it is what makes our job a meaningful calling. To continually strive for the unapologetic well-being of all sounds pretty good to me.

If that sounds good to you, take a break from that application, grab a piece of funnel cake, and start helping me write some emails:


Until next time, y’all!


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