Theoretical Approaches to Disability Content in Social Work Education

By Gilson, Stephen French; DePoy, Elizabeth | Journal of Social Work Education, Winter 2002 | Go to article overview

Theoretical Approaches to Disability Content in Social Work Education


Gilson, Stephen French, DePoy, Elizabeth, Journal of Social Work Education


OVER THE PAST SEVERAL DECADES, theoretical perspectives on disability have undergone a major paradigm shift. Traditionally viewed as a deficit, disability is now more commonly understood as an element of human diversity. Concurrently, on university campuses, definitions of disability have been revised to locate disability within the discourses of multiculturalism and diversity. However, despite the foundational focus on diversity and social justice in the social work curriculum, discussion and analysis of disability in social work courses typically occur through a deficit-treatment lens. In this article disability is defined as the interplay of diverse human conditions with environmental barriers to full community inclusion. This contemporary view of disability, although consistent with the mission and values of social work, receives limited attention in social work curricula (DePoy & Miller, 1996; Liese, Clevenger, & Hanley, 1999). Beginning with a review of the literature on disability and the positioning of disability theory within academic discourse, this article goes on to examine disability content in social work curricula and literature. Finally, a framework is presented to guide social work educators in addressing disability as an element of human diversity.

Literature Review

Disability Perspectives

Historically, disability has been explained and understood from a variety of perspectives. These views of disability span a continuum from a diagnostic-medical perspective to a complex, interactive person-in-environment perspective (Stiker, 1999). Simply put, the diagnostic-medical explanation of disability places the locus of disability internally, within an individual who has experienced illness, insult, or anomaly. This internal focus results in an interpretation of the disabled individual as defective with reference to normative physical, behavioral, psychological, cognitive, or sensory being. The interactive, person-in-environment lens, on the other hand, looks at the interaction of internal and external factors in an individual's life that creates a disabling condition. Between these two views, numerous other explanations and understandings of disability exist, including spiritual demonization or glorification of individuals with disabilities (Gilson & DePoy, 2000b). Contemporary theorists, influenced by pluralism, a perspective which posits the phenomenon of multiple realities (DePoy & Gitlin, 1998), view disability within the complex and diverse universe of human experience, and from this perspective understand disability as a multilevel social justice concern embedded within particular cultural, sociopolitical, economic, and relational environments (Gilson & DePoy, 2000b; Linton, 1998; Oliver, 1996; Scotch, 1984). Contemporary legislation and protection prohibiting segregation and externally imposed control over the lives of people with disabilities have emerged from this perspective (Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, 1990; Rehabilitation Act of 1973, 1978). But even these laws advance diverse definitions of disability. For example, Social Security defines disability as the inability to engage in remunerative employment as a result of a disabling condition (Kiernan & Stark, 1986), whereas the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) defines disability more broadly as limitation in life activities due to impairment.

The literature reveals the complexity and conceptual confusion regarding definitions and understandings of disability. However, two broad definitions of disability predominate: one locating disability as internal to individuals, and one identifying disabling factors in environments external to individuals. Therefore, we propose that social work students be introduced to these two distinct ways of conceptualizing disability.

The Diagnostic Approach to Disability

The diagnostic approach to disability is based on medical explanations of individual human conditions.

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