Late to the dance: Embracing a “strengths-based” approach

What are you best at? From this link:

What are you best at? Please consider taking a strengths-based approach to your social work research or practice!

I’m a bit embarrassed to admit that although usually an on-time kinda gal, I’m late to the dance.  What dance, you may ask? The strengths-based dance.

For many social work practitioners, researchers and educators, the notion of the “strengths – based” approach is ‘old hat’ by now.

And while I am well-aware of this approach, I never took the time to stand back and look at my own research, writing – or teaching for that matter – from a strengths-based perspective.

Dennis Saleeby demarcated a distinct strengths-based approach in social work in the 1990s in which one focuses on strengths first – as opposed to deficits. It is indeed completely logical, completely positive and completely full of potential for better social service processes and outcomes.

Saleeby guides us, for example, with these thoughts: “As we discover the desires, talents, and interest of each person…we hone our skills in recognizing, appreciating, valuing, and utilizing that which is already there. In a sense, we co-create with individuals and various social settings a mutually enriching partnership and exchange” (Saleeby, 2006: 180).

And yet here I am, late to the dance, with published articles full of DSM-IV diagnoses, pathology and a focus on what wasn’t present. How did I end up so very late to this very good dance?  Training for my doctorate as the field of services research began to grapple openly with race and ethnicity-based disparities as well as the intersectionality of oppressions as they manifest in the services sectors, I embraced the notion that we need negative data to document that there is indeed a problem with X, Y or Z topic.

Of course, we need data to draw attention to problems in communities and populations that have experienced disparities of varying natures.  And of course, this is still true.  Somehow, though, I just never got around to stepping beyond that “noticing” and “proving” the existence of problems that some might rather leave undiscussed.

In my case, this involved documenting the existence substance abuse amongst people with disabilities in order to begin to foster increased access to care for a variety of populations with disabilities.  As it turns out, my creative use of existing secondary data to highlight disparities and problems unacknowledged while good on the one hand, were too reliant on being negative. And while my intentions of fostering a movement towards increased access to substance abuse treatment were good – I rode a data-driven negative crescendo all the way through the tenure process.

And then I got sick.  It took becoming ill myself and taking a medical leave to get me to step outside of this deficits-based approach.  While I was being diagnosed and treated by scads of primary care, gastroenterology, gynecology, rheumatology, hepatology and other specialists, I had plenty of opportunity to see how my health problems were categorized, counted and noted – often to the extent that any care coordination went by the wayside.  I was frustrated and I felt like an under-appreciated cog in the wheel – I also just plain did not feel well.

And this is where the very best of academia steps in. After getting better, I took a sabbatical, and this turned out to be the “mental space” I needed to look at my tenure track work with more of a critical eye.  In the fall of 2013, I was a LEND* Fellow at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center, where along with a cohort, I studied disability and health-related policy and service matters.

One day, as we reviewed changes in the Federal-state Medicaid program, a wonderful colleague began to speak about her experiences with eligibility determination.  Starting off as the eloquent and passionate advocate that she is, she began to waver a bit as she talked about how dehumanizing that eligibility process was for her.  She said something along the lines of “they seem to want you to check off everything that you CAN’T do, versus what you CAN do.  Isn’t the point to enable us to live in the community?”  Her words silenced the room – and constituted the single-most powerful lecture of the semester, for me at least.  In a flash, my brain kaleidescoped between my own treatment by the medical profession and my own scholarly works…I knew it was time for a change.

While I wasn’t able to finish that fellowship as a result of medical problems that led to another medical leave, my dictate is clear.  If I am to continue to use secondary data sources creatively, I commit to dredging up what positive measures they may hold – or at the very least reframing how I present information.  And although the challenges of being a scholar in a teaching-focused university are many, I may just need to step outside of my comfort zone and conduct more first-person research that I can frame in the positive.

So, now, although I walk slowly and get tired easily, I’m still up for the dance. I’m off find the way forward a new strengths-based dance partner!

*Leadership in Neurodevelopmental Disabilities

Saleeby, D. (2006). The Strengths Perspective in Social Work Practice (4th ed.). New York: Pearson/Allyn and Bacon.