Applying your MSW knowledge to work with adults with developmental disabilities

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Adults at a group therapy session

A social worker can be an invaluable resource for households in which one or more members have a disability. A disability social worker can connect individuals with services and resources to help them adjust to the challenges they are facing. The assistance can be particularly valuable as families work to care for adults with disabilities, because many services associated with supporting those with disabilities can focus on children and teens.

For adults with disabilities, getting proper care and establishing a support system can be cost prohibitive and prove challenging. This is where social work jobs working with developmentally disabled adults can be so beneficial for families. Social workers can help families by:

  • Connecting them to services they may not know about
  • Helping them understand their options for financial assistance and to apply for such help
  • Serving as an advocate in community groups, work associations, and similar bodies where adults with disabilities may lack representation

These three core areas of focus can make a major difference in the life of an individual and a family. Pursuing a Master of Social Work degree can position you to work in a field that is often personally rewarding.

Exploring the importance of social work careers in developmental disabilities

A social work career focused on individuals with developmental disabilities has the potential to provide significant personal rewards when the efforts lead to better lives for clients. What’s more, the need for social work services in this sector is particularly acute. This is particularly evident in a report from The New Social Worker. The article, authored by a social worker operating in the field, explained that many clients still face stigma and negative attention among the general community, including in schools. A few examples highlighted included:

  • Clients being stared at and pointed at when performing everyday activities in public places
  • Witnessing the derogatory term “retarded” used toward clients, leading to self-deprecating thoughts
  • Experiencing schools shifting funding away from key support services, such as speech therapy, and instead sending individuals with disabilities to dedicated mental health care facilities that lead to negative learning environments and poor experiences
  • Seeing situations in which clients are often told what they cannot do, contributing to stereotyping and challenges in living independently

While some of these issues are specifically about children and youth with developmental disabilities, they point to general cultural tendencies and presuppositions that social workers can play a key part in changing. Whether that change comes in the form of advocating for individuals with disabilities or through counseling and connecting people with relevant services, the need is clear. The report said that working with those who have disabilities and their families can be extremely rewarding because the potential to positively change lives is significant and the unique perspective that members of this community bring to life can be eye opening.

The need for care isn’t evident exclusively in terms of dealing with negative cultural tendencies and the benefits that come with serving the community. There is also a more macro-level challenge of scale taking place in the sector. A study from the Commonwealth Fund explored the growing need for better care systems for adults with disabilities. The research compiled data from diverse studies and came away with a few particularly powerful takeaways. It found that there are more than 22.6 million working age adults with a disability and that this group tends to experience more difficulties accessing care as well as increased use of hospital services and emergency departments compared to the general population. Ultimately, all of his leads to average annual health care costs five times greater than the rest of the population.

There are systemic issues surrounding access to care, employment, and other critical resources for adults with disabilities, and social work services are critical in meeting these needs.

Critical elements in social work for adults with disabilities

In many cases, social workers serving adults with disabilities will work within agency environments, providing an ongoing touchpoint to help connect people with the support systems they need. However, this model for more generalized services is starting to shift, as exemplified by a project that took place in the U.K. The Department of Health and Social Care ran an initiative called the Named Social Worker Programme (NSW) that aimed to connect adults with disabilities with a specific social worker they could rely on for consistent, ongoing services. This meant clients could have a trusted, personal advisor to work with instead of going to an agency or broader support service.

According to the report detailing the NSW, the new model led to more trust between clients and social workers, an increase in opportunities to shape care plans, higher levels of client satisfaction, and some promising evidence that clients were more able to live the types of lives they were hoping for.

This specific project may or may not end up reflecting where care strategies go moving forward, but either way, it is a window into the care goals that social workers typically strive for in this area. Common goals include promoting independence and agency on day-to-day life decisions among clients, ensuring they have access to support services they need and that care plans align with personal requirements. Working toward these three goals are key to social services in this sector.

Social work efforts for adults with disabilities aren’t exclusive to the individual client, either. A published workshop from the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) highlighted that many social services targeted at  individuals with disabilities must also focus on the family, as many of the challenges that come with having a disability have a far-reaching impact on families and lead to a need for holistic care strategies.

Providing care for adults with disabilities

Functioning as a social worker for adults with disabilities and their families often means being prepared to offer a wide range of services. Pursuing an MSW degree can give you access to the course materials and practical learning opportunities needed to help you advance into this specialized field. The online masters of social work can allow you to take classes at your convenience. Contact us today to learn more about how we can help you achieve your goals.


Recommended Readings:

What is the LMSW Exam?

What You Need to Know About Social Work Licensing


Working with the Developmentally Disabled Population by The New Social Worker

Creating Better Systems of Care for Adults with Disabilities: Lessons for Policy and Practice by The Commonwealth Fund

The Impact of the Named Social Worker Pilot by the Social Care Institute for Excellence

Working With Families Who Have a Child or Parent with a Disability by the National Association of Social Workers