By: (Rose) Rosalie J. Russo-Gleicher, DSW, LMSW, CRC
When I entered my MSW program in 1993, I thought I might like to work with children in a school setting. I had no idea that I would become a social worker with adults who have developmental disabilities. It just seemed to be an “accident” waiting to happen. I wish to share my positive experiences of more than 10 years, in the hopes of interesting future and new social work students in the rewards and opportunities of working with people who have developmental disabilities and their families.
My career began one day by “accident” with a few phone calls. My MSW program was trying to find a first-year field placement for me, and I had declined the first opportunity because of the location of the agency. In addition, the MSW program had not considered any of my areas of interest that were listed on the field placement form. When the first week of fall classes had begun and I still did not have a field placement, I decided to make some phone calls on my own to well-known organizations in my area, in an attempt to locate my own placement with children.
I ultimately landed a wonderful opportunity at a large, voluntary, nonprofit organization that serves people with cerebral palsy in a large, metropolitan area. The agency receives funding from the state offices of mental retardation/developmental disabilities, Medicaid, and the state rehabilitation agency.
It was a complete surprise to me when I found out I would be working with adults in a newly established Medicaid case management unit. I had initially called this agency because I had always seen school buses parked outside and knew they had children’s services. It was here that I got my first experience working with adults with developmental disabilities and their families in a day treatment, clinic, and sheltered workshop environment. I became attached to the population and felt this practice specialty was a good match for me.
At this organization, I worked among a multidisciplinary team of professionals, such as rehabilitation counselors, social workers, physical therapists, occupational therapists, psychologists, and doctors. As a student intern at a place that had not had social work interns in many years, I accidentally “stepped on the toes” of several professionals as I attempted to advocate for several consumers to be moved from the sheltered workshop (where people are paid less than minimum wage) to a higher level program. I quickly learned what a social worker could or could not do in this particular setting. It was an example of social work in a “host setting,” where the dominant profession was rehabilitation. I had the full support of my MSW program casework advisor/professor in working out the issues and developing this new field placement site, which still is being used to this day.
At this first-year MSW field placement site, I had numerous other memorable experiences. With my supervisor, I made several home visits to the apartment of a consumer who had mild mental retardation, a visual impairment, and used a wheelchair. The consumer, who lived alone, was often absent from the program as a result of his drinking problems. Ultimately, I helped to admit him into a detoxification program and get a home attendant for him. His attendance improved. I also learned firsthand about hospital emergency rooms when I escorted several consumers with severe seizures in the ambulance to nearby hospitals. I encouraged self-advocacy and advocated systems, as needed. I also learned about the Medicaid offices and Social Security Administration as I escorted consumers and their families to appointments. Thus, it was the first “accident” that really began my interest and career in the field of developmental disabilities.
For my second-year MSW field placement, the MSW program did consider my areas of interest. I was placed at a clinic setting at a nonprofit job training program for young people with learning disabilities, which is also funded by the state rehabilitation agency, the state mental retardation/developmental disabilities agency, and Medicaid. That was a wonderful experience where I did intakes, as well as individual and group counseling with teenagers. There were about six social work interns there, and we had individual and group supervision. As the only second-year student, I was a peer counselor and role model to the first-year students. Moreover, I loved this placement, because it felt good to see the successful progress toward employment for many of my clients. It furthered my interest in working with people with developmental disabilities.