Setting the wheels in motion: Social work placement for students with disabilities

Long before graduating from university, I found myself outside a Western Sydney hospital. For the next six months I was immersed in hospital social work. I was tested under pressure, relying only on the limited knowledge, skills and experience acquired so far in my degree. This was the beginning of my placement.

However, there’s something different about me. I have a nice business shirt and notebook like everyone else, but I also use a wheelchair.

Barriers to placement

Placement is an opportunity for students to gain practical workplace experience as part of their social work degree. This gives them a taste of social work and may help them to find an area of potential specialisation. For students with disabilities, placements can be altered to suit their circumstances. This includes installing ramps to access buildings or allowing students to have flexible working days and hours to manage fatigue.

Despite the consideration given to students with disabilities, they still face a number of barriers during placement. British research has found that students with disabilities struggle on placement because they feel overwhelmed and don’t get their needs met. Often, this happens because hosting organisations have limited opportunities to enquire about students’ needs before the placement commences. Placement agencies may also be unable to accommodate students’ needs due to funding restrictions.

Students may also be reluctant to share information about their disability because they fear exclusion. Recent Australian research found that students experience physical access issues as well as discriminatory attitudes and behaviours whilst on placement. What’s more, university staff can be reluctant to pair students with particular agencies because of their concerns about about students’ capabilities. Addressing these barriers is essential if students are to maximise their placement experience.

Students on placement want to enhance their skills and competencies irrespective of their disability. For their needs to be accommodated, students may be placed in agencies in the disability sector, but this restricts students’ learning opportunities, ability to acquire diverse skills and to find employment.

Placement and jobs

The barriers encountered by students with physical disabilities on placement limit their access to social work employment and their contribution to society. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, New South Wales has the second lowest labour force participation rate of people with disabilities in Australia at 50.6%.

This could be because people with disabilities are regarded as unable to work. There is also a clear discrepancy between the number of employment opportunities for people with a disability and the number for those without a disability. Therefore, it is important to help students with disabilities gain access the workplaces in all sectors, not just in the disability sector. Increasing this access, will help to break down the stigma and discrimination that people with disabilities face every day.

Addressing the problems

There is little doubt the current placement setup is failing social work students with disabilities. To address these issues, the best practice guide on placement and social work students with disabilities recommends that disability awareness training be provided to social work staff. This will help them to recognise and accommodate the needs of social work students with disabilities.

Improved communication and planning between universities and placement agencies can also help students with physical disabilities succeed on placement. Students can play their role in removing barriers too by enquiring about the support that different universities provide for students with disabilities on placement.

When Professor Stephen Hawking died recently, many news articles told parts of his incredible story. What most articles didn’t say, however, is that Professor Hawking was able to do what he did because his workplaces accommodated his needs. Disability should have no bearing on a person’s capacity to reach their potential and contribute to society. Thankfully, when people and institutions make reasonable accommodations, disabilities don’t turn into limits.

Imagine how much poorer our world would be if Cambridge and Caltech didn’t find ways to accommodate Stephen Hawking!

For students, choosing a university that caters for physical disabilities is crucial. Universities that are willing to make adjustments allow students to complete their degree and find employment. This empowers students to reach their potential, overcome stigma and make a significant contribution to society.


As I wheeled myself up the ramp and into the hospital, I met nurses, social workers and doctors, all of whom were frantically working together to support patients. This was my initiation into the world of professional social work. It was possible because my university and my host institution accommodated my needs. In order for students with physical disabilities to maximise their placement experience, placement agencies need to be willing to accommodate their needs.

Without the assistance of a ramp and the collaboration between university placement staff and the hospital, this opportunity would not have been possible for me or the many other social work students with physical disabilities.


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