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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.

Culture and Consciousness

  • Posted on November 10, 2014 at 11:21 AM

Clearly, it’s taking me longer to recover than one might think. I’m feeling much better than I have been, but if you could hear my voice you’d know first thing that I am still sick. I am still congested and still coughing quite a lot, though no longer so much and so deeply that my sides ache. What’s more obvious than that is that my voice is still recovering from a bout with laryngitis. Still, I have been “off” too long and I’m doing my best to get back to being productive. As I am starting to get back to work, I wanted to take a moment to share some of the thoughts that have been with me these past several weeks.

I’ve wanted to read James Charlton’s “Nothing About Us Without Us” for a while now, and I finally got my own copy. Currently, I’m reading five books at a time—each book covering a different subject. (This count does not include textbooks.) Don’t be too impressed, because I’m reading them all very slowly, because I’m not just reading them, I’m also reflecting upon their contents and studying them as deeply as I can. I like the eclectic nature of it, even if it means my progress is slower than it might otherwise be, because I come away with a much deeper understanding than a cursory reading would provide. Besides, sometimes the things I read from these different books click together in unexpected ways.

I hope you read my confession, because this is directly related to that post. Something that Charlton wrote on page 27 helped trigger the realization I describe in that post:

“Most people with disabilities actually come to believe that they are less normal, less capable than others. Self-pity, self-hate, shame, and other manifestations of this process are devastating for they prevent people with disabilities from knowing their real selves, their real needs, and their real capabilities and from recognizing the options they in fact have. False consciousness and alienation also obscure the source of their oppression.”

Charlton goes on to explore the meaning of consciousness, culminating (on page 29) in this:

“The point is that consciousness cannot be separated from the real world, from politics and culture. There is an important relationship between being and consciousness. Social being informs consciousness and consciousness informs being. There is mutual interplay. Consciousness is not a container that ideas and experiences are poured into. Consciousness is a process of awareness that is influenced by social conditions, chance, and innate cognition.”

I live in a culture that systemically devalues people with disabilities. I live in a caretaker culture, in which our government is expected to take care of people with a variety of disadvantages in a variety of ways that further reinforces the notion that they cannot take care of themselves. This culture is being reinforced through my “human resource management” studies, which consistently uses ablist language and caretaker ideas while purporting to support diversity.

It’s left me feeling like I’m getting it from all sides. On the one hand, I firmly believe that the “safety net” the U.S. and other “developed” nations provide is necessary and beneficial to society. Furthermore, I believe the “safety net” should be stronger than it is in the U.S. Simply put, some people fall through no (or little) fault of their own and these people “deserve” to be caught in the net. Other people fall due to their own failings and vices and, though they seem less “deserving,” it is still in the best interests of our society that these people are caught in the net. Finally, there are people who are “pushed” by our society, who have few natural chances to succeed, and need to be caught be the net. Unfortunately, the fact is that this “safety net” we’ve created often fails to catch people. But the true social crime is that we have inadequate means of helping people out of the net and back up into “regular” society.

On the other hand, I reject the paternalistic, caretaker attitude out society projects towards people who get caught by the net. (Note that these condescending attitudes are even stronger to those we’ve failed to catch in the net.) The underlying prejudice is that the people who provide the net are “better than” those who get caught in the net. Many of the existing mechanisms that are put into place to help people out of the net (or to make sure they don’t have to rely on the net at all) are just as paternalistic and condescending as the net itself, including affirmative action and the many other mechanisms that “promote diversity.” The idea here is that these people shouldn’t be treated differently; to ensure that they aren’t treated differently (because we know that they really are treated differently) we help them out of the net using “progressive” initiatives (because we know that they cannot succeed on their own). The whole system is a subtle, but powerful reinforcement of the underlying belief that the people our society casts off really are “less than” those that society embraces.

This is one of the reasons why I just can’t support Democrats. The language they use and the policies they so often create are just so patronizing that their underlying belief in inequality seems blatant to me and it’s offensive. But it’s also one of the reasons why I just can’t support Republicans, either. They’re less patronizing, but they’re also less apt to care enough to create the policies and programs that can actually help people. It’s frustrating, because neither the “safety net” nor the “hands up” need be patronizing or paternalistic. That attitude is not necessary, but it is beneficial if you’re more interested in maintaining a voter base than you are in actually helping people. The more people who are dependent on Democrats’ initiatives for basic survival the more people are likely to vote for them. And our bureaucracy often expresses both the political interests and the patronizing attitudes inherent in the system, when they’re not reinforcing them outright.

So, I’ve been struggling with my own limitations for over a month now. Not only have I been stressed beyond what I can bear, not only have I made myself quite literally ill (thrice over now), but I’ve also been imbibing this ablist garbage, while also reading two books (Charlton’s and a book about revising government) that help me to better envision how things could be. I’ve come away from this mess—rather I’m trying to climb out of this mess—feeling very weak indeed. Physically, I am weakened. More than that, I’m demoralized, because I’ve learned that I am not immune to this culture that I live in. I internalize it. When I’m strong enough, I reject it. Mentally, I reject it outright. But emotionally, when my filters and defenses are shredded, I internalize it and it sticks with me. I spew it back out in the form of self-talk that makes it harder to stand back up and get back to work. Then, I have to go back and clean the garbage out of my system by analyzing it, weighing its merits, and then discarding it once I realize (again) that it really doesn’t have any. Before all of this, I was arrogant enough to think I was immune to this garbage, because I was conscious of it. I know it is garbage, so why would I be susceptible to it! But it doesn’t work that way. Intellectually, perhaps I am immune, but how I feel is something entirely different. Sadly, I hear it, I feel it, and it hurts. When it gets its slimy tentacles tangled up inside me, it hurts more than I can bear.

Nothing About Us Without Us: A Presentation

  • Posted on March 17, 2014 at 9:39 AM