Disabilities within Social Work: The Road Less Traveled

Two weeks ago I wrote a blog post expressing my stress and confusion regarding not knowing what I population I wanted to work with following graduation from my MSW program in May. At the time, I was considering either mental health or disabilities.

After having time to weigh my options, talk with friends and professors, and receive feedback from a stranger, I’ve made my decision. The disabilities field is where I belong. Not only is it my passion; it’s my calling. As someone with a disability myself, I have the ability to offer a unique perspective as a social worker that not many others can provide. Not only do I possess the knowledge as a social worker to look at each individual from a systems perspective, I personally understand the struggles and frustrations of living with a physical disability. I know without a shadow of a doubt that there a very few social workers who can bring in that kind of experience to further empathize with and help their clients on an even deeper level.

You’d think that finally nailing down what population I want to work with would make things much easier. And it has. But there have also been some challenges. For instance, upon talking with the director of my MSW program, I was told something I already knew but didn’t necessarily want to be the case. I was told, “There aren’t social workers in the disabilities field. So, if you want to work in the disabilities field, you’ll have to create a job for yourself.” Even though I already knew that there is a very apparent lack of social workers in the disabilities field, it wasn’t any easier to hear. However, it did help me to put things in perspective and gave me an idea of what to do moving forward. My MSW program director mentioned that finding a job within the disabilities field will be all about networking (as is the case for most jobs, but I think it’ll be even more important in my case). He advised me to literally talk to everyone I know about my passion for working in disabilities and use every possible interaction to discuss my interests and goals.

Following my meeting with my program director, I knew I had to get to work. Therefore, I started by updating my LinkedIn profile to reflect my interest in the disabilities field. Secondly, I decided to make myself some business cards so that anytime I meet someone I want to network with more, I can provide them with my business card. And boy and boy, they sure make me feel professional! 🙂

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For me, another important thing I wanted to be sure and market is my experience with public speaking on the topic of disabilities. Not only am I currently writing my memoir of living with Cerebral Palsy, I also love talking about my disability, especially in schools. When I lived in Asheville and was getting my bachelor’s degree in Psychology, I frequently spoke to groups of elementary and middle school students on the topic of disabilities and bullying. My experiences speaking to those children were some of the most meaningful moments in my life, and I definitely want to once again get involved as a public speaker within the school system to talk about disabilities. As of right now, I don’t have connections within the Charlotte Mecklenburg school system. However, my MSW program director notified me that he plans to reach out to someone he knows within CMS who would likely be very interested in having me come speak at some schools in Charlotte. So, I’m crossing my fingers.

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My first speaking engagement in Asheville, NC at Haw Creek Elementary School. November 2013.

Though it is somewhat frustrating to know that I’ll need to create my own job (in a sense), I am no stranger to going after what I want, even if that may seem impossible. Due to having a disability, I have faced many barriers throughout my life. However, that has never stopped me from chasing my dreams. So, the idea that there are not social workers in the field of disabilities won’t be a deterrant for me. On the contrary, actually. Because there is a lack of social workers in the disabilities field is EXACTLY the reason I need to go into the field. At this point in my life, I’ve become a pro at adapting to seemingly impossible situations, and I’m more than willing to do whatever needs to be done to provide individuals with disabilities and parents of children with disabilities the advocate they deserve!

Jobs, Money, My Future…Oh My!

To say it has been a long time since I’ve blogged is an understatement. Between being in my final semester of graduate school (which starts back on Monday), stressing about jobs, money, and my future, and fitting in time with my boyfriend and my cat, there hasn’t been time for much else. However, as usual, this blog/writing has been in the back of my mind. So, here I am.

When I first began my MSW (Master’s in Social Work) program in August of 2014, I thought I knew what I was in for. I thought I knew the population I wanted to work with. I thought I had the hard parts figured out already. However, I’m beginning to realize that starting my MSW program was just the start. As it turns out, the hard decisions have yet to be made. People ask what population do you want to work with and what kind of work do you gravitate towards within social work…and my expression is completely blank. Because you know what? I don’t know. I don’t know, and that’s scaring me.

As part of my MSW program, each year students are required to complete an internship/field placement for each of the two years of the program. During my first year, I began by interning with an organization that works with individuals with disabilities. However, after a big personality clash between my supervisor and I, I made a quick switch after a few weeks. I then interned for the rest of the year at an adult day health center for individuals with dementia. While I enjoyed that, the pace was somewhat slow for my taste and I didn’t really like working with the elderly population, so I knew that during my second year, I wanted to do something completely different. Therefore, this year, my field placement has been in the case management department of a local hospital. While I enjoyed it at first and I’m able to do the work, I’ve recently realized that it’s not where I want to work following graduation.

Here’s what I do know as of now: I’m interested in mental health (but don’t have any experience with it), I’m interested in disabilities (but know that I want to directly work with clients as opposed to doing a lot of behind the scenes work) and I want to do clinical work. I also know that I love working with kids, but don’t necessarily know if I’d like working with them in a mental health capacity.

And here’s where all the frustration comes in. While I realize that it is just as good to know where you don’t want to work as well as where you do, I thought I’d have a better idea at this point. I thought I’d have it figured out, and I don’t. I thought graduate school would help me figure out what the hell I want to do with my life, but it hasn’t. Other than knowing I want to be a social worker, obviously. Which is good, I guess. But it doesn’t feel like enough.

I’m hoping that I have a better idea of what direction I want to move in following graduation, but what if don’t? What if I’m just as clueless then as I am now? The hard part is that I know I’ll need to get a job following graduation in order to pay for rent, bills, and living. At the same time, I’m just as scared to take a job working with a population I don’t have experience working with. To be honest, that terrifies me….to get in a job and realize the learning curve is way more than I bargained for. Therefore, the obvious result would be to take a job in an area of social work that I already have worked in (like in gerentology or the hospital)…except for the fact that I know I don’t enjoy working with those populations/in those settings. Agh! I’m frustrated, to say the least.

Thankfully, I’ve been able to talk to multiple people about all this. And all of them have told me that it’ll all work out and that I’ll find a job. However, what many of them have also said that it may not be a job I really like right out of graduate school. And I guess that’s what’s so hard. The uncertainty. The not knowing where I’ll be working. And the likelihood that even once I find a job, I might not even like it. How crappy is that? I thought the whole point of going to graduate school was so that I could work in a field I love and enjoy going to work every day?

And when I get in this kind of funk, the ever looming question emerges: Am I cut out for this work…Do I really even want to be a social worker? At this point, I know one thing: I know I want to help people. I want to help people more than anything in the world. And hopefully, when the time comes and I’m sweating my way through all sorts of job interviews, that will be enough.

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Why I’m Participating in Relay for Life

Though I have never participated in Relay for Life previously, this year I felt a particular need to do so. As a current Master’s of Social Work (MSW) student, my fellow classmates and I are studying to become social workers who are able to best support the most vulnerable and oppressed populations, and my population of choice is children with special needs and children undergoing treatment for cancer.

In August of 2013, I began a year-long internship with Arts For Life in Asheville, NC that changed my life. Arts For Life is a non-profit organization in North Carolina that teaches art projects to children in the hospital. Specifically, I taught art projects to children with special needs and children undergoing treatment for cancer. Early on, I felt particularly drawn to the children I worked with because like them, I spent extensive amounts of time in the hospital as a child because of my Cerebral Palsy. While I was a patient at Greenville Shriner’s Hospital as a child, doing art projects was the highlight of my hospital stays. Therefore, to have the chance to provide the same happiness to other children was incredibly rewarding. I worked with many children and families throughout my internship who commented that I had changed their lives because of the joy I was bringing to them and their families. But truly, they were the ones who changed my life.

Please join me in raising money for anyone who is fighting or has fought cancer. No one should face such a hard battle, especially children!

Click the following link to donate and support me at Relay for Life: http://main.acsevents.org/goto/ameliacoonrod

On The Right Road

This past Saturday, I graduated from college with a Bachelors in Psychology. As I sat in the third row among my classmates, barely viewable among a sea of blue, I was happy. I wasn’t the girl a few seats over who kept having to wipe away her tears. I wasn’t the guy one row in front of me who looked bored, as if he’d rather be any other place than seated among his classmates. I was the girl in the third row whose gaze kept moving back and forth between the keynote speaker and section 4 of the arena where my friends and family were sitting. I was the girl who was soaking up every moment.

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Author and higher education expert, Arthur Levine, was the keynote speaker at my graduation ceremony. At first, when he began discussing the current state of our economy and the degree of technological change within our society, I became bored. These were things I had heard countless times, especially within the bubble of a liberal arts university. However, what he said later made me perk up my ears.

“We need your help as part of the most diverse generation in U.S. history – we need your help to knit together a deeply divided nation,” said Levine. “We need your help in dreaming, designing and developing a new world tied together by technology. … We need your abilities and imaginations to create the first global society in history. … Tomorrow’s going to require leaders who want to help heal a pained nation and a troubled world – you can make a difference. … Making a difference is your birthright.” (courtesy of the UNC Asheville website)

Specifically, the last part of this passage touched me, most importantly the idea of helping to heal and make a difference. In many ways, since I have chosen to pursue my master’s degree in social work beginning in August, I felt as if Arthur Levine was speaking only to me. There were moments in which it felt like he was looking right at me. It was as if he was simply reassuring me that I am moving into the right field, while also moving into a profession that I have a true passion for. Receiving this kind of reassurance, which I assume was not his intention, was one of the greatest graduation gifts I could hope to have been given. It was as if the universe was saying, Yep, you’re doing exactly what you need to be doing, so keep going.

Therefore, rather than processing out of my graduation ceremony with a sense of worry and dread, I held my head high. I smiled because for the first time in my life, I truly felt like I was on the right road to start doing what I’m meant to do. What I also realized was that I’ve been doing just that for the past few years. I have been following my passion of helping others ever since I decided to open up about my experiences with Cerebral Palsy in January of 2012, and that passion has only increased since I have started speaking to elementary and middle schools on the topic of bullying as it relates to my CP experiences. So, though I haven’t started my master’s program yet, I do feel like I have been on the right road for a while now. Truthfully, I think I knew that the first time someone contacted me after reading a blog post of mine to tell me how opening up about my experiences has helped them to better understand what their son, their daughter, or they themselves are going through.

As I continue to enjoy my summer, and specifically focus more strongly on writing my memoir, I’ll push myself forward by knowing that I am helping others. Even if it’s just one person, I am helping that person to become more aware of disabilities. I am helping them to see the one thing that I myself still struggle to see sometimes: Different is beautiful.