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On Charity, Social Work, and Public Administration

  • Posted on January 16, 2015 at 10:00 AM

It is the opinion of this writer that any time you make a generalization, you enter dangerous territory. Among other things, you risk making the totality of your point (which might be valid if it were better defined) null and void by a single, contradictory example.

[Enter James I. Charlton’s Nothing About Us Without Us from stage left]

In what must be considered poignantly illustrative of their perilous and degraded status, people with disabilities are significantly controlled by charity and social service institutions (broadly considered, private welfare agencies, asylums, and residential facilities). This is the case throughout the world, although charities are more prevalent in the United States and Europe.

Some might see that it is contradictory to point out that most people with disabilities do not have access to a safety net while at the same time criticizing charities and social service agencies. (p.93)

Charlton’s premise consists of a few main points:

  1. While charities and social service agencies (lumped together, falsely) do help some, they also create dependency.
  2. They contribute to the degradation and isolation of those they help, but taking care of clients whilst keeping them out of sight.
  3. If the problems they ameliorate were solved, the charities would cease to exist.
  4. Many of the people who do this work do so because, in the words of Billy Golfus, “Their game is about wanting to be in control of other peoples’ lives,” (p. 94).

First, charities are nonprofit organizations that gather donations from the public (through public and private grants, as well) in order to meet an organizational mission. These charities may hire social workers, but a social service agency is, almost by definition, a government organization, which also hires social workers. Lumping these very different kinds of organizations together as a single problem or as a collective is logically unsound, because they operate and function in very different ways for very different purposes.

Second, the unfortunate reality is that people who cannot support themselves are dependents. While much is done that encourages continued dependence, this is true across the entire strata of society, from families to international governments. If that is to change, then services need to be made available that contribute to independence. It’s a difference of paradigm and mission, not organizational or functional structure. A nonprofit that takes creating independence, or better yet interdependence, as its mission would still be classified as a charity or a social service agency, depending on whether it’s independent or governmental in nature.

Third, organizations with such a mission already exist, as a byproduct of the same attitudes and social changes that have made the DRM movement possible. There are organizations that have already made the transition from disempowering caretaker organizations to empowering education organizations.


Fourth, any organization that fails to adapt when its environment changes, dies. Those that try to keep the environment from changing inevitably fail and die. Only those that change survive. This is no less true of charities than of any other organization.

Fifth, there certainly are people who strive to exert control over others’ lives. Some gravitate towards social work. Some start charities. Some start businesses. Some start wars. Most just have kids. We live in a broken world full of such people and the rest of us just have to live with that, or change it.

Despite the fact that I can pull apart the argument on logical grounds, there is truth to what Charlton is saying, especially from the perspective of people who’ve been disempowered for most of their lives. If people are ill-prepared to take control of their own lives, then there are those who will try to withhold control from them. Again, most of these people are called parents. There’s a time for this, and there’s a time to let go. And it’s never easy knowing which time any given moment falls under. There is nothing inherently malevolent or oppressive about this, though there are certainly malevolent and oppressive people who engage in the behavior.

For me, the heart of the matter is something that Charlton would seemingly refute or ignore. Charity is, loosely translated, most properly equivalent to “brotherly love.” The word as it is used today is a deviation of the charity found in the King James Bible in 1 Corinthians 13, which states in verse 3, “And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, and have not charity, it profiteth me nothing.” The whole of this chapter gives ample evidence that 1) giving and 2) serving are not charity, that charity is loving others in Christ-like fashion, and that these acts only do good when they are done in the spirit of true charity. As Charlton seems quite anti-religion, he might find it rather ironic that his observations are proof of the soundness of this part of Jesus Christ’s doctrine, at the very least.

Shortly after reading and getting wound up over this segment, I had a chat with a social worker who also happens to have learning and neurological disabilities. This person had been struggling for months at work, because of miscommunication resulting in part from her reluctance to disclose her own disability and in part from her co-workers’ apparent distinction between things-that-apply-to-clients and things-that-apply-to-coworkers. This isn’t the first time this issue has gotten in the way of her work, either.

Part of it is that Charlton’s not wrong in his observations, he’s just wrong to generalize those observations and apply them to two entire sectors in the global economy. Unfortunately, he’s right that most of the professionals operating in these sectors have been taught in ways that contribute to the very problems he’s cited. These are people who often don’t know better, in that they’ve never been clients. The people who have been clients tend to be marginalized, in part because they’re not taught how to counteract the forces that marginalize them. These issues are not particular to disabilities, but are holistic and systemic within both sectors.

My friend has been a client in almost every applicable way. She has had disabilities, presumably for her entire life, but has gone undiagnosed or underdiagnosed for most of her life. She grew up in extreme poverty and in an environment rife with abuse and neglect. She has been failed time and again by the systems that supposedly operate to protect and support people like her. She entered her profession to do better for others than was done for her. And she’s not alone. There are many, many like her all over the world, who have struggled against terrible odds, who have become professionals in either the nonprofit or public sector, and have chosen to do better for others. And Charlton’s rash generalization erases them all.

Disability Identification

  • Posted on January 9, 2015 at 10:00 AM

I’m reading Nothing About Us Without Us by James I. Charlton. One of the topics he covers is disability identification. As the argument is presented, one of the biggest challenges of the Disability Rights Movement (DRM) is getting people to both identify with their disability and their peers with disabilities and to feel empowered; because, dominant cultures assert that disability is weakness and inferiority.

As the mother of three children with disabilities, it was easy for me to reject the idea that my children were weak and inferior. I value my children as they are for who they are. It was easy to recognize that, yes, they have disabilities, but no, their disabilities don’t mean what the dominant culture says they mean. This is especially easy when confronted with the dominant culture’s willingness to see children like mine as disposable, where parents who murder their kids are the real victims. That makes it really, really easy for me to reject the dominant culture wholeheartedly, because I just can’t find it in my heart to sympathize with parents who kill their own kids, let alone empathize with them.

As a woman with a newly diagnosed disability, it’s a bit harder for me to reject the idea that I am weak and inferior while still acknowledging my disability. Really, the only thing I have going for me in that regard is that I was already primed to reject the dominant culture. When you’ve lost abilities that you once had, it’s hard not to see yourself as “less than” you were. I don’t have the same physical capacity I once had, but since I was never a very “physical” person, I can handle that. But I don’t have the same mental capacity I once had, either, and that’s much harder for me to cope with, because I was and am a very “mental” person.

I think a lot. I think when I work. I think when I “play.” I think instead of getting bored. I am a nearly endless source of my own “amusement.” I hate the fact that I lose track of my own thoughts. I hate the fact that I can’t remember things as readily as I used to. And I hate the fact that fatigue and cloudiness interferes with the way I want to live my life.

I can deal with the pain of fibromyalgia a lot easier than I can deal with the mental impact. There is part of me that sees that impact as making me less than I was. For that part of me, acknowledging my disability is acknowledging that I am less than I was. But there’s another part of me that knows that this struggle misses the point.

When people without disabilities regard people with disabilities as being “less than,” they’re not talking about being less able, they’re talking about being less human. The dominant culture treats people with disabilities as if they were less human, less valuable, less worthy of life, of rights, of support.

I am less able than I was, but I am no less human, no less valuable to my family or my clients, and no less worthy of my life, my rights, and the support of my fellow human beings.

This is simply true.

I could make it a matter of arrogance and point out that I was more able before my disability and that I am still more able than most of humanity with regards to the things that I value. I am still more able to handle three children with autism while respecting them and nurturing them into adulthood. I am still more able to write a damned fine piece, whether it’s a blog post or a web page or a book. I am still more able to create a loving, sustainable marriage with a partner with bi-polar disorder. I am still more able than anyone else to live my life.

That’s true, too; but, it’s not the point.

The point is that people with disabilities should feel free to identify as having a disability without shame and without being made to feel less human. The point is that people with disabilities should not be ashamed to associate and affiliate with other people with disabilities, or even with other people without disabilities. Humanity isn’t measured by degrees of ability. Humanity is an either/or option. Men are human. So are women. But gorillas aren’t. Dogs aren’t. And the fact that I can’t remember the right word(s) to describe the distinction doesn’t really matter either.

We are all human beings, regardless of our abilities and our disabilities, and we all matter.



(This is not to be construed to mean that we should be free to go around killing gorillas and dogs for fun, because they don’t matter. Animals matter, too. So do plants, for that matter. It’s just that, in my opinion, people matter more.)

(Now, I’m going to go ask my husband what the word(s) I can’t remember are, because it’s bugging me that I can’t remember. Apparently the words I couldn’t remember are binary distinction, but Mark doesn’t think it works, because there is more than one type of animal, so it’s not binary. But either/or and yes/no are binary, and that was the point I was making, so I’m going to stick with the thought that refused to be pinned down.)