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How Wearing High Heels During my Commute Helped Me to Be a Better Social Worker

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Ableism is the idea that people with disabilities are not typical and are, therefore, inferior. Upon reflection, I have engaged in ableism against people with physical disabilities while on public transportation. Typically, I take public transportation during the peak hours of commuting to work between 7 a.m. and 9 a.m. and leaving work between 4p.m. and 6p.m.

There are signs on the bus indicating that when a person with a disability enters the bus they are to be given seats in the front, and people with wheelchairs or motorized chairs, walkers, canes and women with baby strollers occupy those seats. However when the bus is crowded during those peak times there is somewhat of an ‘all bets are off approach’ to seating and people tend to disregard those signs.

My example of demonstrating ableism involves a woman with a motorized chair who entered the bus one day. When she boarded the bus, everyone sitting in the front had to move towards the back to make space for her to enter and turn her chair towards the front. On this particular day, I’d had a very bad interaction with a client at work. Mentally, I was not in a good state of mind as a result.

I also had on heels which made my feet hurt from standing. Seats on either the left or the right could be used for a person with a disability, however, the woman entered the bus and immediately looked towards the right where I was sitting. I knew this meant that I, along with another woman, should stand up and make room for her. The bus was very crowded and therefore moving towards the back felt like a nearly impossible task in order to make space for the woman in the motorized chair.

Without realizing it at the time, I was perpetuating a system of oppression onto the woman with a disability. Disability studies scholar Tom Shakespeare states that society is a disabling factor in the current social model of disability. He argues that it promotes the social oppression and exclusion of people with impairments – as opposed to a focus on the impairment itself as the problem. Looking back, I recall that I was upset that the woman with the motorized chair had turned to my side of the bus and I had had to get up. This response perpetuates a cycle of oppression because I used her disability as a source of rationalizing why she should be excluded from the bus.

Although I did not say anything verbally to the woman in the motorized chair, my face and body language gave a very descriptive picture of how angry I was that I had to move. The other women that were sitting next to me were verbal with their anger and made comments such as “she should have waited for the next bus, as there’s no space” and “why do we have to move for her?” In the moment I agreed with those women and their outbursts. I was upset, tired, and in pain because of my heels. My only thoughts were selfish thoughts about wanting to get home so that I could get comfortable.

In retrospect, our attitudes were ableist because we ostracized the woman with a disability and trying to exclude her from riding the bus as everyone else was doing. I likened these feelings to feelings of the ‘survival of the fittest’; mentality that was prevalent during Darwin’s lifetime. As a recent PBS documentary discusses, people with disabilities were viewed as ‘undesirable’ and every effort was made to treat them as outsiders in society rather than practice inclusivity.

At that time, people with disabilities were not viewed as fit to be amongst abled-bodied people. As it relates back to the bus, the signs clearly acknowledged the seats were for persons with disabilities or the elderly. However, due to our own selfish reasoning and justification, we did not feel it was enough to warrant giving a seat to the woman in the motorized chair.

It is important for people to recognize their ableist nature so when situations similar to the one discussed arise they can approach it with respect and empathy rather than disdain for the person with a disability.

This essay was written by an anonymous M.S.W. Candidate at Salem State University’s School of Social Work in Salem, Massachusetts.  The author may be reached on Twitter at @disabilitysw or via email at disabilitysocialwork@gmail.com.  This author’s blog posts are published at www.disabilitysocialwork.blog.

Rooted in the tradition of anti-oppressive social work practice, this blog focuses on the support of people with disabilities as opposed to the “servicing of” and “doing for” people with disabilities. Intended as a place for reflective practitioners to share their struggles, views and innovations, this blog is also a clearinghouse for information and perspectives relevant to anti-oppressive social work practice with people with disabilities at the micro and macro levels.

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