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Communities of Practice: The Development of a Disability Studies' Curriculum

Carolyn Gutman, Tel Hai Academic College
Co-author(s): Miriam Ben Oz, Carolyn Gutman


This presentation describes a model for developing a disability studies curriculum through a community of practice within the faculty of social work at Tel Hai Academic College in northern Israel.

Together with the emergence of international disabled people's movements in the 1970s and their campaigns for equality and full participation in social life, emerging inter-disciplinary disability scholarship has presented alternative theoretical frameworks that view the construction of disability from a critical socio-political lens. These developments challenge traditional perspectives of disability in the caring professions such as social work and question their roles in reinforcing the oppression of the lived experiences of people with disabilities.

The field of Social work in Israel is still largely grounded in an individual model of disability which functions to strengthen the legitimacy of rehabilitation social workers and enforce the dependency of their clients. Furthermore, traditional social work education continues to promote these principles through its conventional curricula and teaching methods. These methods make use of a closed structure that maintains the hierarchy of lecturer, practice teacher and student as exemplified by Freire's banking system of education.

Social work education needs to challenge these traditional methods for training the next generation of social workers by educating them to actively participate in enacting social work's mission of social justice, empowerment, self-determination, and commitment to marginalized populations.

We at Tel Hai are committed to the development of a new and innovative curriculum in social work education that will be grounded at the intersection of discourses of disability studies and anti-oppressive social work. The curriculum is intended for a course for students who will work in disability organizations for their field work requirement. We believe that Wenger's (1998) model of Communities of Practice provides an innovative framework for developing a curriculum that will create exciting new tools to train the next generation of social workers. As Wenger himself emphasizes, communities of practice are "groups of people who share a concern or a passion for something they do and [they] learn how to do it better as they interact regularly". We believe that we share this passion together with our partners to promote social change for people with disabilities.

Potential stakeholders in the Community of Practice will include people with disabilities (representatives of organizations of people with disabilities, people with disabilities from the general public), and the academia (lecturers, field coordinators, practice teachers and students). While we understand that the process of developing a Community of Practice for social work education with people with disabilities will inevitably be accompanied by many dilemmas, both ideological and practical, we are committed to following this course.

We are sure that a Community of Practice in the Social Work department of Tel Hai will promote collaborative learning so that the next generation of social workers will be better equipped as activist social workers. As a result, these social workers will be able to work effectively together with people with disabilities to challenge the oppressing structures that hinder their active social participation.

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