Study group on stigmatisation, disability and racism

Above: study group participants meet in a hybrid group, with some in person and others taking part via Zoom.

To gather evidence for a United Nations review of the UK’s human rights compliance, ATD Fourth World is running a two-year series of study groups on poverty, social work and the right to family life. Three earlier sessions focused on risk, neglect, and parent advocacy, and ATD submitted its first report to the UN in December 2022.

The fourth session, on 15-16 December 2022, focused on the theme of “Stigma, discrimination and exclusion linked to poverty, disability and racism”. The 15 participants included 7 lived-experience activists; 2 practitioners of social work or family support work; and 3 academics in the fields of social work or human rights.

One of the elements participants looked at were the troubling findings of a survey of social workers  where it was discovered that over the past year, more than 25% of them experienced racism from people they worked with. One in five said this increased their anxiety. While we have not seen statistics about how discrimination might impact the interactions of families with social services, the survey statistic gave our discussions food for thought.

One participant said, “Social workers are supposed to have a better kind of values because they care for other people and they have people’s lives in their hands. But the statistics show that even among social workers, discrimination happens”.

‘Stigma hangs over you’

Following preparation among the parent activists on the 15th, when starting the conversation the next day one of them said:

“I see stigmatisation and discrimination in my role as a parent advocate. In one case, a social worker put in the report to the hearing that she thought the mother’s weight was so severe that she didn’t think she could get down on the floor to play with the children and therefore they would not develop properly. ‘Too fat to have children’—that shouldn’t be a thing!

“In other situations, I’ve had parents with learning disabilities; but no professional has gotten to know these parents well enough to realise that they didn’t need children’s social care, they needed adult social care. It sort of feels like there’s one tool in the children’s social worker toolbox, which is: ‘I can put the child in a place of safety. Tick. My job’s done. I don’t have to think or work any harder than that. Because now that I can do this simple thing, the one thing that’s easiest for me to assess, there won’t probably be any backlash to me. That’s my job done.’

“But people are so complex: people have large families; people have disabilities; people have learning disabilities; people have mental health challenges; people have different cultures.

‘No fresh starts’

“Part of the problem with stigma and exclusion and hatred is that

it sticks and you never get a fresh start. But everybody deserves that.

“Things shouldn’t hang over you and that’s part of the trouble with having social work intervention. After a prison sentence, there’s supposed to be rehabilitation. But if you’re a family that has had social work intervention, there’s no rehabilitation for you; that will stick with you for generations.

“At the sea, every morning it’s a completely different beach. We’ve built sandcastles; they’ve been washed away. I think we should all be like the beach and everybody should have a fresh start every single day as we seek to better understand the world.” – parent

Key discussion points:

  • Families in poverty have unequal access to resources
  • Some procedures and practices are discriminatory
  • The perception of social norms can lead to judgements and stereotypes
  • People receive unequal treatment
  • Top-down design doesn’t work
  • Power imbalances impact people’s experiences of racism

Some participants also made recommendations: social work assessments should include poverty; champion the change-makers; think of greenhouses not warehouses; work with the media to undo stereotyping; and local authorities can have a culture of values that supports fragile families.

Families in poverty have unequal access to resources

“At the moment, I’m trying to help other parents that are struggling with electric and they’ve got no gas, and they’ve got no food. You know how the government gave these hardship funds for families but the councillors are allowed to do what they want to do with this money. They can share it however they want. One council at the moment is giving £500 to foster families and only giving £50 to normal families.” – parent

“It’s obscene, but if you look back through the history of those families, that’s what’s going on in the care system structurally. If support, including financial resources, were inputted to families, with their children at home, you’d have a much reduced need for reception into care and for the services of those albeit mostly laudable, decent sorts of fostering.

“It’s a crazy skewed system that only puts the money downstream instead of putting it upstream, and stopping problems happening in the first place.” – academic.

“Citizens’ Advice Bureaus have been given hardship funds to distribute—but some staff there say they have no support in deciding how to share it out. They just don’t know who really needs it most and who might be trying to scam them. And they feel stuck with a new responsibility that they aren’t prepared to carry out properly.” – family support worker.

The advantages of affluence

“Poverty has always been apparent, especially over the last few years with government cutbacks. We’re meant to be challenging neglect and poverty, but with the limited resources we have, it’s very difficult to make a difference as a social worker.

“I’ve noticed through my practices as a social worker, if you have, in inverted commas, middle class or more affluent families who have a disabled child, they are more able to use the system to get money for their child or resources than somebody who’s living in poverty.

“Social workers in some places will not help the more poor families get the resources. There’s also poverty in relation to knowledge, understanding of how the world works and accessing resources.” – social worker.

“I am pleased when I hear that families are getting the support that they rightfully deserve. Unfortunately that’s not the case everywhere. I think it’s a postcode lottery in some local authorities where someone’s getting that support, but there’s other families that aren’t getting that support. I’ve got four disabled children, and we’ve never been given the support that we needed. We’ve got to look at the fact that the system isn’t fair.” – parent.

Some procedures and practices are discriminatory

“Even though as a social worker, you try your utmost not to discriminate against the client/service user, I think in lots of cases they are discriminated against because the procedures and practices do not favour the clients.” – social worker.

“There’s been an increasing number of Section 47 child protection inquiries and child protection plans for children with disabilities and that for me fits into this context of discrimination. My worry is that acceptance of hatred and persecution is very much on the rise.

“And that usually results in hatred to people from ethnic minority communities, those from sexual minority communities and those with disabilities. I see homophobia and transphobia within social work. […] Another fundamental issue is that local authorities are happy to spend money outside of birth families. When I was in practice, our authority had an adoption support fund, but there wasn’t a birth family support fund. Providing institutional care costs a crapload of money, but in too many cases social services are not willing to take the risk of spending a significant amount of money to support a birth family to meet additional needs.” – academic

Pressure and legislation

“I agree but I think sometimes it gets a bit more complicated than that. When local authorities go to court, they get a lot of pressure from the system, judges and barristers, so they have to spend money upstream; downstream, they can get away with not spending money. I think the local authorities do not have a lot of money in real terms, and they do their utmost not to spend money. But I’m not saying it’s right.” – social worker

“From when I first went into social work, it was very clear to me that there were quite nice people in the profession, and there were also quite a lot of absolute psychopaths. And yet they are singing from the same sort of song sheet. So much of it is determined by politics. In good periods we have better legislation—not perfect, but more helpful. The 1989 Children Act has been badly implemented but it’s got good bits in it, much better than the 1975 Act, which was almost exclusively about removing children from their parents, and making permanent separation easier.

“If you’re a rubbish social worker with horrible ideas, there’s a good chance that some progressive legislation will constrain you from doing the worst thing. Similarly, if you’re a good social worker, you can play to your strengths and try your hardest to do what you want to do if there is better legislation.” – academic

Judgements, stereotypes, and social norms

“From my personal experience, I see there are so many different layers in this world. It’s like in Star Wars: the lowest person at the bottom cannot live at the top. Only the highest people can see the sky and go flying in the sky. In our society too, underneath others, there are so many different poor people in the dark underworld. It’s hard to reach the top layer.” – parent.

“From the moment you have a child with a disability, it feels like you are a suspected abuser, at least on paper. I’ve interviewed social work students. We designed case studies that we asked the students to read. We put in all these different nuggets that we want them to glean out of it. One of them is always disability, and it is far more common for students to be concerned about whether or not the disability is real. A couple have said, ‘I’m not sure if they’re just faking their disability to get money’.

“Rather than looking at the situation, wondering if they’re receiving everything they’re entitled to, what extra support should we give them? It’s very rare to have a student ask: what extra support can I be getting for this family?

“I think that judgmental mind frame is either being taught or seeping in from media and other perspectives.” – parent

Does your face “fit”?

“For social workers, it’s all about whether or not your face fits. Because even their language, they see as you’re being too over familiar. And when parents get told that their child has a disability, the doctors might not explain that disability. So parents have to do their own research. But if a parent does the research, then they’re seen as being too knowledgeable and it’s then used against them.” – parent.

“Yes, and that point about whether your face ‘fits’ is around social norms and social control. It’s not just whether you’re living in poverty; it’s also whether social workers, as part of a sort of overseeing state, view you as somehow ‘normal’ and fitting in with what major expectations are. Things can then go totally off kilter with parents unjustly accused of fabricating induced illness. Or social workers don’t fully understand a wonderfully loving family. I think there’s a real fear there, particularly with children with disabilities, around parents doing things differently. And therefore social workers act as ‘agents of social control’ as to who is and who isn’t considered a decent citizen, for want of a better way of putting it.” – academic.

“I heard a talk by one of the leading academics at the University of Cambridge. He was speaking about how he lives in a nice suburb and he bikes ten miles to work in his nice, cushy lecture hall. In between, there’s a suburb he passes where

he says: ‘All these children are in poverty, and they have horrible lives; you wouldn’t imagine how awful it was to be one of those children. We need to rescue those children’. He says, ‘we’re failing those children because of their horrible lives’. As he bikes past, that’s what he sees. But he doesn’t know anything about their lives; it is only about how much money their parents have.” – parent.

Unequal treatment

“When my own daughter was being evaluated for access to special education services, one report said that I needed parenting lessons. That experience of being in the room with a psychiatrist who questioned very seriously my parenting skills had an impact on me. Because she had specifically told me that she thought I wasn’t strict enough with my daughter, even though I didn’t agree, I started being much stricter and harsher with my daughter and just yelling at her more in the weeks following that evaluation. I am not in poverty and I managed to push back eventually; but there are parents who hear that constantly, just for trying to access services, and it can impact their family relationships.

“I met a grandmother raising her granddaughter in real serious poverty. The girl was profoundly deaf and basically for 16 years they had not gotten any of the services that they needed, which damaged their ability to communicate with each other. That intersection of poverty and disability makes such a big difference.” – family support worker.

“I absolutely agree: the understanding of disability and the needs that go with it is completely mediated through the lens of how much money you’ve got. And that of course also impacts on your attitude towards campaigning to get the resources. My granddaughter was born with a genetic quite serious learning disability. My daughter-in-law, who is not at all in poverty, has been very good at fighting for what her daughter needs. Not anywhere on the spectrum was the hesitation about approaching Children’s Services and demanding an assessment. It starts with your sense of confidence as to what you are entitled to. And I don’t think it occurred to my daughter-in-law at all that there was ever a risk of the “what’s really going on here” thing, which we know all too easily intervenes when people with less money start trying to get exactly the same services.

“We see everything in this flipping country through a class lens and poverty, and through access to resources and distinctions between people’s class positions. Even if two children have the same disability, there is so much more inequality that stems from the poverty issue. I don’t think section 17 with its three neat little categories of different sorts of children ever foresaw how vicious that would be.” – academic.

Institutionalisation instead of support

“In our case, we need an accessible toilet, because my daughter is paralyzed from the waist down. We fight to try to get these resources and I am fairly proactive, but there is the pushback where social services have said that their solution will be to place her in a residential facility where she would have the accessible toilet because otherwise we are neglecting her. It’s a long drawn process of the dozen different ways we’re trying to solve this, but the point is that for a family like ours, their solution is the child doesn’t have the right to have a toilet that works and also her family; she can have either one or the other. That’s not equal treatment.

“I know of a residential school providing institutionalised care for children with disabilities. We like to pretend that we don’t have institutions in this country, but we do. These children are accommodated ‘outside of their parents’ care’. That’s a very fancy way of saying that these children with disabilities have been shoved in an institution because the state has taken them away from their parents. I was brought into this school to build a parent peer support group and begin parent advocacy, which is very positive chat and we’re making progress. But every single one of these parents sought support; that’s where their child’s journey into institutionalised care began: when the parents sought support.”  – parent.

Racism and power imbalances

“Social work is a place where there’s a huge power imbalance and there’s so much fear. I imagine it would not be easy for social workers to stand up to each other about prejudice. When I worked in nursing care, there was an elderly man who wouldn’t let one of the other nurses make him a cup of tea, because of her culture and colour. It was very awkward because he had dementia and was not of sound mind. But at the same time, the challenge of trying to address that situation in an appropriate and robust manner is challenging. We need to better stand up for people to be treated with equality. But it’s the challenge of not knowing how to address those situations. It’s very difficult to know: how do we challenge this?” – parent.

“I agree. Obviously, being a Black social worker, you do experience racism to an extent and it can be dehumanising. I believe my identity is fluid, and it depends on the situation which I’m in. But usually I call myself a social worker of African descent, Nigerian. But I don’t have an African accent, so some people say ‘Oh, you’re English’, but no, I’m not. When I go back to Nigeria, people find it racist to say we’re English. Identity can change wherever it is. But when I was in school here, you’re one of the British kids. Identity is floating.

“At the same time, due to power imbalance, the racism I experience as a social worker is not going to be the same as I would experience being a service user or a family.

“My brother once went to buy a baguette from a shop, and the person in the shop went to him, ‘This is really expensive bread? Do you think you can afford it?’ My brother said, ‘Yes, of course I can!’ and made a joke. I’m just saying being a Black person, it’s going to happen and the question is how you deal with that situation and let it affect you. When my brother was able to deal with the situation in what he thought was a humorous way, it hadn’t had any effect on the day.

“But sometimes, if you get aggressive to deal with that situation, and shout at that person—maybe rightfully so—but then you’ve been fulfilling the stereotype. It’s how you interact. If you don’t have the skills to deal with it, the power imbalance matters a lot more. When people are coming into the country seeking asylum, it’s up to the government to determine if they are illegal asylum seekers. They’re not criminals. But if you listen to the media, they are.” – social worker.

Top-down design doesn’t work

“There’s a problem with the kind of services and support that’s designed for people. One of the major foundations in my area funded birth parent support; but it had to go to local authorities who were meant to work with families and the community. Because it never went any farther than that, we are still not getting the support down to the peer-to-peer support or the community level.

“People who are in the situation have a better understanding of what they need within their circumstances than people who aren’t in that circumstance. Lived experience matters. When the money is being given only to people who are sitting in offices who’ve never had their children removed, don’t have a child with disability, and aren’t experiencing poverty, is it any wonder that, even when they do potentially try to build some kind of support thing (and there’s not a lot of that around); even then, it doesn’t work, it’s not fixing the problem.

“[…] I know a brilliant chap who is completely blind, he was born that way. He often starts training social workers by asking them, ‘What would you do for me as a blind person?’ and then shoots down everything they say. His point is that whatever they think he might need as a blind person, they’re almost certainly wrong. He doesn’t need any of those things. That’s not how he lives his life; he lives his life in a completely different way that is very difficult for anybody who’s not been born blind to understand. That’s probably uniquely true to each and every one of us. There’s lots of overlaps, but it’s so hard for somebody to come into our lives and presume that they know what we need.” – parent.

Society’s moral compass

“They’re criminalised by the media. They’re portrayed like they’re bad people because if we somehow say ‘they’re not like us’, maybe it makes it easier to detach from the fact that these are human beings who need caring for. It’s bizarre, because they’re fleeing from somewhere. Why are we not embracing these people?” – parent.

“Social work is not detached; social work is linked to the wider government project and welfare state, isn’t it? That’s important in terms of discrimination. Child protection isn’t separate from the benefits office, or separate from the DWP [Department of Works and Pensions]. We’re all part of the same government agenda. I think our welfare state has been founded on the ideas of women as carers, men as breadwinners, and the UK as a white country.

“In those wider debates about disability, the disabled are viewed as a reserve army of labour for when we need them. That sounds a bit theoretical, but I really think those wider debates are absolutely influential. It’s very Victorian. The moral compass our society still uses is very similar to that robust Christian Victorian project about upstanding white men in society paying their way and the others going to workhouses.” – academic.

“At the University of Cambridge, they held a global conference on human flourishing. It’s deeply disturbing to find out that the word ‘flourishing’ was actually a fancy way of saying that what the government cares about is your economic value and a child’s potential to earn money and be a taxpayer.

“They said in that conference that the global statistics governments collect as their indicator as to whether or not their people are flourishing is how many people are unemployed. Unemployment means not flourishing; employment means flourishing. That’s mind blowing. I didn’t realise that we are genuinely evaluated based on our economic potential.

“The entire conference ended up saying, ‘Clearly the education system isn’t working, the social care system isn’t working’, not because people are being traumatised, not because they’re being harmed, but because their economic potential is not where the government wants it to be. That’s their motivator.

“So I wonder, is it that asylum seekers aren’t seen as having great economic potential? If they were, I bet we’d treat them better. Is it that we categorise people with disabilities because their economic potential isn’t ‘sufficient’ enough to motivate the government to invest? That’s horrific.” – parent.

People seeking asylum

“There’s also a racist gradation to it all. I’m very pleased that we’ve taken in Ukrainian refugees, I’m not saying that that shouldn’t happen; but because they were generally white European refugees, there was a totally different lens applied, to their access to the country, they are given a very different place in our society than a refugee with a different colour of skin who is fleeing war, be it in the Middle East, be it in Africa.” – academic.

“The thing I find quite strange about all this is that most refugees and asylum seekers have benefited the country, whether it be the Windrush generation, or the Jewish people, or others. The prejudice is just basic racism: being scared of the other, and dividing and conquering by the powers that be.” – social worker.

“Coming back to the role of social work, there’s been really good critiques that social work has been happy to do age assessments to see whether young unaccompanied asylum seekers are ‘legitimate’ or not. That’s what I mean about social work not being separated from the wider welfare state. That’s quite dirty work to do. There are teams that do all right, but there are some teams where blatantly that goes quite against social work values.” – academic.

Perceptions and labels

“I’ve always fought for all races. We need to change the perception of people’s views. Society and the government are actually doing this divide, and they want us to carry on doing that divide. We all need to stand together and say, ‘No, we’re not going to say that I’m white British, or I’m white privileged, or I’m from the Black community’. Instead, we need to stand together and say, ‘Regardless of our ethnicity, we’re all people and no one is better than anyone else.’ And when people are saying that I’m ‘white privileged’, I find that offensive.” – parent.

“There’s more to it. I’ve been to university, I’m relatively articulate, so I know the prejudice which I would see from, maybe the police, maybe is different from someone else who is also Black but didn’t have my education. The difference is I’m always going to be Black. So I’m going to be discriminated in certain places. Of course there’s also other kinds of discrimination. But some people are forced to think about their identity on a daily basis when they’re interacting with people. Unless they’re maybe white and rich. But some people have to think about it all the time when they’re interacting with people, say in the school system, they’ve got to be careful.” – social worker.

“It’s an important point about forces that try to divide people. It happens all the time, in many different ways people are pushed against each other. But there’s also the question of labels. Sometimes when you’re ticking boxes on a form, certain boxes are there and certain ones are not. And how does each person want to describe themselves? It’s not helpful any of us putting any labels on anybody else. Partly because, you know, there’s lots of different forms of discrimination based on how people look. And then there’s other forms of discrimination based on things that aren’t necessarily visible, like povertyism or being care-experienced.

“There’s some forms of racism that are based on how society thinks people look that actually don’t correspond to how they see themself. It’s important that everybody gets that chance to say, ‘This is how I want to present myself.’ You were also talking about the expression of white privilege. There can be educational privilege, there can be ableism privilege. So just as we want each person to be able to describe their own identity, I wonder if we could also have that same ethic to talk about privilege?

“For me, I’m white, and I feel privileged for the education I’ve had, and I’ve also  sometimes been in situations where having white skin has given me privilege. But none of that means that somebody else with my exact same skin colour has experienced that same privilege. They might not have been in those same situations at all. So it’s something I might say about myself; but I wouldn’t want to project that into somebody else who has a different experience.” – family support worker.


– Social work assessments should include poverty

“There are just a couple of places where they’re trying to do things a bit differently. In one place, for example, the senior management has bought into the fact that neglect is a social form of harm and that therefore, assessment does need to include poverty, and poor housing and mould.” – academic.

– Champion the change-makers

“We have to champion the people who are bravely willing to fight for something different and to continue to lift their voice. If society keeps bashing the people, there’s no change. You don’t beat a dog to get it to behave better. You don’t beat a child. But the policies are not human. And those policies do need to be beaten.” – parent.

– Greenhouses not warehouses

“When I was practising, we used the terms ‘greenhousing’ and ‘warehousing’. When you just take a child out and put them somewhere where they can’t develop, that’s a ‘warehouse’ where they don’t grow. Instead, you want to nourish a child and look at the long term and put them in a ‘green house’ where they can grow, develop and become a better person. I do acknowledge that lots of social workers believe that care is the best option for a child. I don’t agree with this; it may be the case for some children, but I don’t believe it is most children. If you’re a good social worker, you’ve got to look at the long term and stop warehousing children.” – social worker.

– The media can undo stereotyping

“Media is really crucial. They are bigger than the government. They have so much influence.” – parent.

“Media can be incredibly harmful by depicting specific groups of people in a stereotypical manner. Stuart Hall’s representation theory of media argues that media is not only the way of reproducing already existing stereotypes; but it’s actually how stereotypes are created in the first place. Some of us have collaborated with Heard, a charity founded as On Road Media. It creates conversations between people with lived experience of poverty and media outlets like the BBC, but also EastEnders. For their new season, they’re doing a storyline about poverty based on dialogue with people with lived experience.

“That is so important, because lived experience is the best way to change those stereotypical narratives to make other generations think differently and then start acting differently. Maybe there wouldn’t be such a stigma around poverty if people understood it better through the media. That has happened for the LGBT community; just seeing LGBT representation in media makes people feel more comfortable with sharing that they’re from that community and coming out to people because they don’t see it as something weird, or something that’s not talked about. It’s more normalised. In the generation we live in, if you get media on your side, you got it all. ” – facilitator.

– Local authorities can have a culture of values that supports fragile families

“When I was pregnant and living in a hostel, that local authority tried their best to get rid of me, just telling me to go back to where I came from. And then they moved me three times in three months with a new-born baby. But in the end, I’m very grateful that I got moved to a different local authority where social services just picked me up from everything and gave me support. Every local authority struggles with funds. But the difference here is that they still try to find a way to help you. It’s really down to their culture and their values. They invest in training some of us as parent advocates so that we can make their positive impact even bigger. All of us parents want to give something back. We have so much positivity in our situation now and we changed.” – parent.


1 Section 17 of the Children Act 1989 is about assessing and providing support for children with complex needs.