This post was written by Lois Didyk. She is a graduate of the Ryerson Social Work program.
I returned to school to get my social work degree after 20 years of working in the mental health field. Apparently that makes me the “mature” kind of student. So hear my wisdom when I say to you, social work students – take a Disability Studies Course! Now. Hurry.
You know that expression – you don’t know how much you don’t know until you know. That’s what my social work degree was like for me. Sure I had tons of direct service experience, so I did know a lot about something. But I knew one thing well, and there’s so much more to this story.
My social work degree was great for giving me the theoretical lens that I needed to complicate existing knowledge, so that I could better understand what is really going on for people and be more critical of (and constructive to) our mental health system. This let me filter my work and experience through frameworks such as anti-oppression, post modernism, critical deconstruction, anti-colonialism and the likes… It’s all good stuff, and has made me a better social worker.
Equally important has been what I learned from the Mad People’s History course (DST 504) which I took at the end of my degree. Wow, did that ever rock my world! I got in on one of David Reville’s last courses before he retired – lucky me. It was one of those courses that made me feel really uncomfortable (in a good way!) and challenged me as a person, as a “case manager”, and as part of a system that has a horrible history. There is no ‘status quo’ once you’ve taken a course like this – it makes you see everything differently and you want to get involved to move things forward. At least that was my experience, anyway!
While I learned far too many things to summarize here, let me give you a taste of the thinking that DST 504 stirred up for me. Here are some bits from my Field Trip with Mad Activism assignment:
“Mad means so much more than just mental illness – it speaks to the history, to the social context and to the oppressive experiences that go along with having been diagnosed with a mental illness”;
“I watched If these Walls Could Talk – love the symbolism of walls as barriers that protect society from the hidden world of the mad. Today’s walls are social exclusion, inadequate housing, lack of income, inadequate supports, … A great line that stood out for me was that conformity and compliance are not life skills!”;
“Some things I realize now: the mad community, like all communities, is not homogeneous – there are many different perspectives, experiences and opinions working towards the same cause; change can be a slow process, but it is a process none-the-less as long as there is movement; critical thinking and speaking up are important for social justice work; and there’s a place for everyone in this fight.”;
“Mad academia matter! That’s because: this field of study shapes the students who are also the front-line workers providing mental health services; it affects the policies and practices that define our mental health system; it legitimizes a discipline that has often been excluded and viewed as superfluous; and it influences society’s views and practices of mad people.”
For me, Ryerson’s social work and disability studies programs go together beautifully – like dark chocolate and organic peanut butter. Yummy! It doesn’t have to be the DST 504 course – just find the course that speaks to your passion, and dive in (it counts as a professionally related course for social work, if you get it cleared first). After all, if you are doing social work, you are working with people touched by disabilities. It’s relevant. And did I mention – take a DST course!