Diversity in Social Work: Can you Relate?

We usually think of diversity as taking into consideration a client’s ethnic or racial background, sexual identity, gender, or perhaps age;  however, it might be useful to consider diversity as any difference between the social worker and a client in which the client might feel that the clinician cannot understand their experience.  With this definition, another realm of diversity considerations open up for the clinician to consider.  For example, the diversity of life experiences.  Perhaps the client suffers from a chronic health condition such as rheumatoid arthritis.  Can the average clinician truly relate to that?  Or perhaps the client is infertile, has had breast cancer, is disabled, or suffers from migraines.  These are conditions that most clinicians may have no personal experience with.  Or perhaps the client is the parent of a child with ADHD, has triplets, or has had a child miscarry or die.  Again, the average clinician might not be able to relate to such experiences. 

Does the average licensed clinician understand what it must be like to have a learning disorder?  What is must be like to be an alcoholic or even in recovery from addiction?  Can they relate to being raised in grinding poverty or, for that matter, to have had a childhood of wealth and privilege?  

This rule of diversity (any situation or condition where the client may feel the average clinician might not be able to understand them) can also be applied to belief systems as well.  Any client with beliefs outside the “mainstream” can legitimately wonder if the clinician can understand their views or whether the clinician might harbor a bias about them because of their beliefs.  These might include a client’s religious beliefs, political opinions, belief in supernatural phenomenon, etc.

Even within well-known diversity categories such as culture, there are layers of diversity.  One client might be a fourth-generation member of a particular cultural or racial group, while another might be first generation.  Differences of acculturation and assimilation into the mainstream make for very different perspectives.  Take Indian immigrants as an example – most Indians who immigrate are from the higher castes such as Brahmins, who make up a “model minority” (polite, law-abiding, high-success) group.  Dalits (untouchables) who migrate to the United States often experience prejudice and discrimination based on their caste, which most US residents are oblivious to. 

 The list is endless because the human condition is one of endless diversity.  Including diversity in clinical practice means more than just acknowledging and/or tolerating difference. Diversity is a set of conscious practices that involve seeking to understand and learn about human uniqueness along a wide range of differentials, and understanding that diversity isn’t just about ways of “being” but also about ways of “knowing” and experiencing the world.  Applying diversity theory also acknowledges that some groups are automatically granted more privileges and opportunities based on certain characteristics, while others are denied opportunities, privileges, and respect based on their race, cultural background, age, gender, disability, or any other part of their identity.

When the clinician sits down with a new client that is obviously different (different race, gender, or disability) it is ideal to ask the client, at some point in the intake interview, if they have any concerns about working with the clinician based on these differences. Not doing so may lead to the client, who does have such a concern, to simply not come back for a second session.  By raising the issue of difference in the first session, the clinician is role modeling for the client that the therapy room is one where things can be talked about safely. The client learns right away that the rules about what one can talk about and, therefore how one can be, are different in the therapy room.