Disability social workers help people with disabilities connect with the services and supports they need.
At some point in their lives, nearly everyone will be impacted by disability, either through direct experience or through interactions with friends, loved ones, or colleagues.
A disability social worker may work as an advocate for disability rights in the workplace. They may work as a coordinator for services or help clients apply for or obtain those services. They may work for a government or advocacy agency.In this guide
- Career pathway
- Skills and knowledge
- Education and certification
- Understanding disabilities
- Career options
- Outlook and salary
A disability social worker may work in schools or universities, providing educational support or acting as an advocate for individual students or for organizational change. Or, they may work with parents and guardians providing support as well as information and referral to community, medical or social services. They may assist students and parents with completing the necessary paperwork for them to receive support.
A disability social worker may work in medical settings, such as hospitals, outpatient offices or residential facilities. In these settings they may provide group, individual or family services including case management, advocacy, assessment, discharge planning, information and referral, and support.
Pathways to disability social work
There are many ways to become a disability social worker. The path you choose may depend on your circumstances, your preferences, or your career aspirations.
The most straightforward path is to pursue a bachelor’s and/or a master’s degree in social work with a specialization in disability social work. If this specialization is not an option at your chosen program, you may be able to tailor your field experience to disability social work.
Another path to pursue is to start working with disabled people straight out of high school or college in a different capacity.
Then you can pursue part-time and/or online options to obtain an MSW or a bachelor’s in social work. Some employers may offer financial assistance for your education provided you agree to continue working with them for a specified period of time post graduation. There is usually a requirement to maintain a given grade point average as well, typically a 3.0 or higher.
Another path to disability social work comes through volunteer work. Some people develop their interest in a social work career while working in a completely unrelated field after a volunteer experience opens their eyes to the possibility of a career in social work.
Still others come to the field of disability social work through personal experience. People with disabilities and their family members and friends may feel drawn to the field of disability social work either to share their experience and expertise with others or to create positive change in the field.
Creating this positive change through the macro path of policy work or advocacy is another avenue. Social workers interested in impacting societal, governmental, or legal change can work as advocates or lobbyists. They may work in law firms, medical centers, advocacy agencies, human resource departments, non-profits or NGOs (non-governmental organizations). If this is your chosen area, a dual degree in social work and public health, public administration, or law could be useful.
Skills and knowledge
Social work education will teach you knowledge and skills that are important in working with any population. The Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) has a disability focused curriculum guide that identifies additional competencies for disability-competent care including the following:
- Ability focused perspective
- Person first language
- Respecting self-determination
- Understanding of disability culture
- Understanding of person-in-environment perspective
- Identifying and working to overcome personal bias
- Up-to-date understanding of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and other national, state, and local legislation.
- Knowledge of facilities, programs, and resources at the national, state and local level.
- Ability to act as an advocate and/or support for clients in accessing these services.
- Ability to identify and advocate for policy change on individual, community, agency, levels as well as the local, state, and national level
- Up-to-date knowledge of current research and ability to apply this research.
Education, certifications, and skills
There are many ways to work with the disabled population. However, to be a social worker you must have a bachelor’s degree in social work (BSW), a master’s degree in social work (MSW), or a doctorate in social work (DSW or PhD). You can be a case manager without having a social work degree, but that is not the same as being a social worker. If your job title is case manager, and the position does not require a social work degree, you can not call yourself a social worker.
If you know from the start that you want to go into disability social work, you may want to choose a program that offers a specialization or certificate in this area. However, there are not many options available.
At the time of this writing there are 7 MSW programs that offer specializations in disability social work. There are 3 BSW programs and 7 MSW programs that offer certificates in disability social work.
Furthermore, the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) does not offer credentialing in disability social work.
There are some certificates available through schools such as The University of Michigan. NASW credentials that may be relevant at the masters level include Certified Social Worker in Health Care (C-SWHC) and Certified Advanced Social Work Case Manager (C-ASWCM). There is also a case management credential available for bachelor’s level social workers, the Certified Social Work Case Manager (C-SWCM).
Understanding disability social work
While there are not many programs that offer specific coursework geared toward working with people with disabilities, the generalist framework of social work education does provide a strong foundation of social work skills that apply to many situations. In addition to the disability-competent care skills listed above, generalist skills that are particularly applicable to disability work include skills that are listed below.
- Assessment and evaluation of clients and programs
- Case management
- Care management
- Family services
- Information and referral
- Strengths-based perspective
- Cultural competence
- Systems theory
- Person-in-environment perspective
- Community organizing
- Grant writing
- Policy creation and implementation
Disability social work career path
There are many career paths disability social workers can pursue. Case management is one example. Case managers can work in a variety of settings, from government agencies to hospitals and community agencies. In this role, a disability social worker might help their client access services, find housing, or find employment, for example.
Advocacy is another career choice for disability social workers. On the micro level, disability social workers may work directly with their clients in employment, medical, and educational settings, among others.
On the mezzo level, disability social workers may work in community organizations and settings. On the macro level, disability social workers may work to inform policies and legislation that benefit the disabled population.
In the field of education, disability social workers may work in schools with children and their families providing educational support or acting as an advocate for individual students or for organizational change. They may assist families in obtaining services or improving accessibility.
Disability social workers might also work at the university level. In this case, they might work at an individual college providing similar services to k-12 settings. They might also work for the state University Center for Excellence in Developmental Disabilities Education, Research, and Service (UCEDD) which has expanded to include many types of disabilities.
Disability social workers may also work in medical settings, including hospitals and doctors offices. They may work in outpatient and residential programs. As mentioned above, in these settings they may provide case management, advocacy, assessment, discharge planning, information and referral, and support services to individuals, groups, and families.
Outlook and salary
In 2022, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projected a 9 percent increase in social work jobs between 2021 and 2031. This is almost double the projected 5 percent increase in growth for all professions.
The BLS reported that the median annual wage for social workers was $50,390 in 2021 with the lowest 10 percent earning less than $36,520, and the highest 10 percent earning more than $82,840.
While the BLS does not specify growth and earnings for disability social workers specifically, Salary.com reports that in May 2023 the average disability social worker annual base salary was $52,683.