Elspeth Slayter and Lisa Johnson

Given the high prevalence of disability worldwide (World Health Organization, 2023), it is important for practitioners to be prepared to effectively and respectfully engage with disabled people and disability communities (Slayter, Kattari, Yakas, et al. 2023). We set out to develop a peer-reviewed, edited, open-access textbook that would provide social work students and practitioners, and those in other helping professions, with free, accessible information and resources to support their preparation for work with disabled people and communities using a framework informed by critical theoretical approaches and the disability justice movement’s ten principles (Sins Invalid, 2019).

Social Identities

We feel it is important to acknowledge our backgrounds and the impetus for our work as co-editors of this textbook. Elspeth identifies as a White, disabled cisgender woman who specializes in health services research related to the experiences of the disability community in the addictions and child and family services sectors. Lisa studies racial and ethnic disparities in child welfare systems and identifies as a queer, Black, non-disabled, cisgender woman. We are research and writing partners using an intersectional lens to consider the experiences of disabled people with different social identities in the child welfare system. This work led us to thinking more critically about all social work practice with disability communities, causing us to see the need for a different kind of textbook than is currently available on this topic.


We recognize the importance and power of language and have worked to be intentional about how we use language, especially that which speaks to individual or group identity. Below we explain our approach with regard to disability and racial identities.

There are varying perspectives on how to refer to members of disability communities. For many years, ‘person-first’ language has been deemed a respectful approach as it highlights one’s personhood while recognizing disability as part of their lived experience. More recently, disability rights and disability justice advocates and members of some disability communities have rejected person-first language in favor of ‘identity-first’ language to embrace disability as an integral part of their identities. In this introduction, we use identity-first language as it is the preference of the co-editors. Throughout the book, both person-first and identity-first language are used depending on the preference of the chapter authors and people whose stories are highlighted. However, there is no one-size-fits-all approach, so it is always best to check with and take the lead of the person or people you are interacting or working with.

Similarly, there is no universally shared preference for language related to racial or ethnic identity. In fact, debates about how to write about identity abound. One article that captures the spirit and scope of these debates as related to race is presented by the Columbia Journalism Review (Perlman, 2015), which recommends capitalizing Black, but not White. Arguments in favor of capitalizing White are made by Appiah (2020), the National Association of Black Journalists (2020), and the Diversity Style Guide (2023) who argue that it is important to call attention White as a race and to the way this racialized identity functions in our society. Our approach as co-editors is to capitalize both Black and White when referring to racial identity, which is also the guidance of the American Psychological Association (2020) publication manual, which our discipline of social work utilizes for formatting written work. When discussing concepts such as whiteness and white supremacy, we do not use capitalization. As with disability identity language, chapter authors have taken various approaches to capitalizing racial identity. We encourage the readers of this book to make their own decisions about language use based on a thoughtful review of the literature and based on their contexts.

Theoretical Frameworks

A key goal of this book is to introduce an intersectionality-informed and critically culturally competent approach to anti-oppressive social work practice with disabled people, primarily in the United States. To do this, we present an innovative practice model for social workers to use in their work with disabled people and communities, which is incorporated throughout the book in a variety of practice considerations. The main themes woven throughout our practice model are intersectionality theory, critical cultural competence, and anti-oppressive practice. These concepts are introduced and explained in chapter 2 of this textbook.

An intersectional perspective focuses on the mutually determined influence of multiple, intersecting social identities on our lived experiences within systems of privilege and oppression (Cho et al., 2013). Moving beyond basic cultural competence, “critical cultural competence notes that “awareness, knowledge, and skills alone are inadequate” (Danso, 2015, p. 574). We believe that critical cultural competence is about “social workers’ ability to engage in high-level action-oriented, change-inducing analyses of culture and diversity-related phenomena” (Danso, 2015, p. 574). This concept also recognizes issues such as intersectionality, power differentials in the worker-client relationship, and examination of one’s social location or social position held in society based on social characteristics (Lusk et al.,2017). Anti-oppressive practice involves interrogating institutions and structures to recognize how even when social workers are trying to do good, we can replicate bad (Baines, 2011). Our full practice model is explained, with a helpful case example, in chapter two.

Voices and Narratives

In honoring the theoretical frameworks noted above, we also set out to present the experiences of a range of disabled people with different social identities in various service areas as a way to inform better social work practice and to do so using the social model of disability as our primary lens for understanding the environment as disabling given the medicalization of disability in many social work textbooks. In addition to bringing disabled people’s stories about their experiences with social work to light, we accomplish this task by pulling together a team of authors who are practitioners, educators, researchers, and advocates with a range of social identities, including disability identities. When we speak of “disability identities,” we are referring to not only physical, medical, and sensory disabilities but also neurodivergence, chronic illness, chronic pain, mental illness, madness, and so on.

Designed as a main textbook for social work courses at the bachelor’s and master’s level or for social work practitioners in the field, this work moves beyond a traditional medicalized and segregated approach (i.e., chapters organized around impairments) to the exploration of disability-specific populations, instead taking a more intersectional approach in discussing specific service areas and practice issues while weaving in stories about the lived experiences of disabled people with a range of social identities. These issues include parenting, mass incarceration, ableism, aging, and employment, among many others.

Our book acknowledges difference and multisystemic privilege and oppression while also drawing readers’ attention to the importance of solidarity and allyship when it comes to meaningful social work practice with and social change for disabled people. In our work, we prioritize the voices of disabled people and their experiences with different parts of the health, education, justice, and social service arenas. We hope this textbook’s structure and the theoretical frameworks it presents will make it a useful tool for educators, students, and practitioners in social work and other helping professions.

Book Cover

Finally, the cover of our book represents some of the important decisions we made in editing this volume. The cover consists of the accessible icon in black at the bottom corner of the 2021 version of the disability pride flag. The disability pride flag, which was designed by Ann Magill in collaboration with others, is set on a black background and has a diagonal band of five stripes of different colors oriented from top left to bottom right. The flag has all the standard flag colors signifying that the disability community spans borders between states and nations. The black background symbolizes mourning and rage for victims of ableist violence and abuse. The diagonal orientation of the band represents “cutting across” the walls and barriers that separate the disabled from normative society, as well as light and creativity cutting through the darkness. The stripe colors represent the following disability identities: invisible and undiagnosed disabilities (white), physical disabilities (red), neurodivergence (gold), psychiatric disabilities (blue), and sensory disabilities (green). The different color stripes also represent the variety of disabled people’s experiences and needs, but the stripes are parallel to each other to illustrate unity among disabled people. We embrace the disability pride stance that comes along with the flag and take a strengths-based and empowerment-oriented approach to thinking about disability. Similarly, we use the accessible icon image over the flag in order to honor the disability community that made this icon in response to the more static and unempowered traditional wheelchair user symbol.


May this book be helpful to you as you work to develop and/or hone your disability lens for practice with the disability communities you connect with over the course of your career. We would love to hear from you (please email us at or regarding your reactions to the book, areas you would like us to add or improve upon, and the ways in which you have used this book in practice.


Elspeth Slayter and Lisa Johnson, Co-editors


Suggested Citation

Slayter, E., & Johnson, L. M. (Eds.). (2023). Social work practice and disability communities: An intersectional anti-oppressive approach. Pressbooks.


American Psychological Association. (2020). Publication manual of the American Psychological Association 2020: The official guide to APA style (7th ed.). American Psychological Association.

Appiah, K. (2020, June 18). The case for capitalizing the B in Black. The Atlantic.

Baines, D. (2011). An overview of anti-oppressive practice: Roots, theory, tensions. In D. Baines (Ed.), Doing anti-oppressive practice: Social justice social work (2nd ed., pp. 2-24). Fernwood Publishing.

Cho, S., Crenshaw, K. W., & McCall, L. (2013). Toward a field of intersectionality studies: Theory, applications, and praxis. Signs, 38(4), 785-810.

Danso, R. (2015). An integrated framework of critical cultural competence and anti-oppressive practice for social justice social work research. Qualitative Social Work, 14(4), 572-588.

Diversity Style Guide. (2023). White, white.

Lusk, M., Terrazas, S., & Salcido, R. (2017). Critical cultural competence in social work supervision. Human Service Organizations: Management, Leadership & Governance, 41(5), 464-476.

National Association of Black Journalists (2020, June 11). Statement on capitalizing Black and other racial identifiers.

Perlman, M. (2015, June 23). Black and white: Why capitalization matters. Columbia Journalism Review.

Sins Invalid. (2019). Skin, tooth, and bone: The basis of the movement is our people (2nd ed.).

Slayter, E. M., Kattari, S. K., Yakas, L., Singh, R. C. B., Goulden, A., Taylor, S., Wernick, L. J., Simmons, L. D., & Prince, D. (2023). Beyond Ramps, Curb Cuts, and Captions: A Call for Disability Justice in Social Work. Social Work, 68(1), 89–92.

World Health Organization (WHO). (2023). Disability.


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