This paper will concentrate on some of the issues in relation to being personally powerful and powerless, and the understanding of differences and dimensions that exist within a social work environment. I will relate to two scenarios pertinent to my own personal experiences in relation to powerfulness and powerlessness. It is important to understand when issues of power – such as social class, gender, religion and disability – are being discussed. However, the main aim of this paper is to focus on two specific aspects: disability and racism.

The aim of this paper is to unravel the underlying thread of multiple oppression, in relation to power and powerlessness. This will allow an understanding of the different theories that seek to challenge forms of power. The interlocking nature of oppression will be the focus together with a critical analysis of how powerfulness and powerlessness is complex and transmissible in society.

Disability and Power

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To discuss the issues surrounding power, it is necessary to first give a definition of what power is. The definition of power as Foucault has observed, is comprehensive: “its influence is everywhere in society from the level of state to the routines of everyday life. In this sense power is not just a commodity possessed by an individual or group, which confers control over others…” (Layder, 1997, p.13).

This approach is from a personal experience, and involves me being the main carer for my mother who is disabled. The position that is going to be adopted is considering the feeling of power a person can have over a disabled person. Due to a person’s disability there is an underlying assumption which makes the disabled person feel powerless and places the able-bodied person in a position of being powerful.

Oliver (1990) cited in Twigg (1999) defines disability as: “The disadvantage or restriction caused by social organisations which take no account of people who have physical impairments and thus excludes then from the mainstream of social activities” (Twigg, p.347).

An examination of disability from historical perspective reveals that there has been patterns of oppression against disabled people which is culturally embedded and socially accepted. This culture of oppression has been a great influence for many disabled people who have encountered discrimination (Macfarlane, 1996). The Disability Discrimination Act was introduced in 1995 and was intended to enable people to be safeguarded by challenging what they saw as degrading and oppressive accounts of disability within society structures (Twigg, 1999).

One crucial element for disabled people is to have equal rights and privileges to those which an able-bodied person would be entitled. This will make them feel independent, which is generally considered to be something disabled people aspire above all else. For many disabled people being excessively dependent on others could make them contemplate the need to adjust their lifestyle, with the person who is caring for them. This could lead to a subsequent loss of freedom and autonomy, and in addition could build up a relationship between the carer and the disabled person which is unequal (French, 1998).

Sapey and Hewitt (1995) argue that disabling environments, such as physical, social, emotional and political, become disabling due to the lack of thoughtfulness of the needs of people with physical impairment.

My own personal opinion from an emotional prospect is the fact that my mother was a role model for me at an early age and I always turned to her for guidance and support. During my early adulthood my mother developed arthritis and also suffered from a heart attack. This along with other medical problems led my mother to be classed and registered as a disabled person who needed constant support in managing her daily living care. It was difficult for me to accept, because the person who I dearly loved was now looking at me for help and support. This dramatically changed my relationship in many ways, such as now taking the lead role of the responsibilities and decision making which my mother used to deal with. This was a kind of power which I did not ask or expect to have over another person, especially my own mother.

The power that I possessed made me feel guilty, angry and frustrated. This was because I felt powerless in the sense that I had lost my mother to a disabling condition which I had no control of, and I had the pressure of seeing my mother struggling to cope with her own personal care. This was also difficult for my mother to accept, because as a parent it felt natural to her that it was her duty to look after me. One such concern for my mother was the difficulty to accept me in an adult role as I was her child and somehow she felt guilty in letting me down. It is some of these barriers that both my mother and I had to face, which gave me a sense of being powerful but yet on the whole a sense of feeling powerless. However, this incident made it very difficult for me to understand the wider context of power which I had within this dynamic relationship.

Caring for a disabled person is not just about their material needs, it is the ability to adjust in ways of thinking, and this can be difficult both for a carer and a disabled person (Macfarlane, 1996).

Disabling images are created and controlled by able-bodied people. This in essence is founded on abstraction of dependency and comparable level, defined by professionals as gatekeepers of services and support. The repercussion of such responses then reinforces the concept of controlling the decision-making process, which can shape the lives of disabled people (Swain et al, 1998). This can prove to be difficult for disabled people to assimilate, as the lack of disabled people’s involvement does not provide a real change. Disabled people to a certain extent need to rely on able-bodied people and certain groups to represent their beliefs. These discourses seem to be apparent in relation to equal opportunities and the belief surrounding empowerment. The truth is, there is little evidence to suggest that attitudes and practices have significantly changed unless they are tied into systematic procedures and policies (Leach, 1996).

However, with the introduction of the Disability Discrimination Act 1995, the notion of disability rights have been an influential factor in making changes for disabled people and recognising the need that they can equally contribute to society (Delin, 2003).

One of these changes was a shift in terminology, such as the ‘medical model’ of disability. The ‘medical model’ as defined by Delin (2003) says, “this model identifies disability as an illness or condition affecting an individual and with the onus of dealing with the consequences on that individual…”. Delin also gives a definition for the ‘social model’ “identifies barriers within society, which create disability for individuals. The barrier can be physical organisational and attitudinal. The responsibility for solving or removing barriers is shared by all those involved in any situation or interaction” (p18/19).

The social model provides a barrier that helps to eliminate oppressive practices in areas such as institutional discrimination, work and education. The social model theory is most often practised by organisations who do not adequately ensure the needs of disabled people (Oliver, 1996).

Although a disabled person might be limited in expressing their choices, the carer also when involved with a family member could be restricted in their choices. The obligations, expectations and duty that one may expect from a carer within a family context might not necessarily be the ones that a carer shares. It could be taken for granted that the nature of caring and the response of the carer can sometimes lead to a failure to perceive ways in which the carer’s social and emotional life could be affected. Even though the carer might have certain elements of power, they could still feel powerless due to the relationship involved with the person (Twigg and Atkin, 1994).

Carers often have to cope with many conflicting feelings. This can be influenced by who you care for and how you began caring. It is of great importance to accept and understand that carers can have mixed emotions such as loving the person who one cares for but still feeling resentful and depressed (Sethi, 2003).

The way in which disabled people live their lives can be structured and influenced by society as a whole. This ideology can be seen in relation to people’s physical and intellectual differences in the way they view disability and the surrounding issues such as discrimination and stereotyping. The judgement of disability is the ideological part of an individual oppression that is related to the material aspects of the obstacles which one can experience. This in return can follow a pattern of segregation, because of the vulnerability of a disabled person, which on impact perceives a disabled person as powerless (Morris, 1996).

Being a carer for a disabled person within the context of a family structure is a very complex issue to understand. Though there is an element of power, there is also the notion that the disabled person may not have the necessarily options to choose what is available. Overall, when trying to balance the sensitive issues of power, the able-bodied person in theory has greater control in making decisions relating to power (Sharkey, 1995).

My own experience of my relationship with my mother was difficult as I did not want to be able have to make decisions for her. Personally I did not see this as an element of power but more of a moral duty and the issues surrounding power were overcome by responsibility. I had the ability to understand that the power I held was justified in making decisions for my mother. However, I was also aware that the power I acquired was through circumstances and not by choice.

Powerless and Racism

(Lorde, 1984) defines racism as the ‘belief in the inherent superiority of one race over all others and thereby the right to dominance…manifest and implied’ (p45).

This particular incident occurred when I was working at a residential home with male adults who had to some degree of challenging behaviour or minor mental health problems. On the first night of arrival there was a brief introduction to some of the staff members who had just finished their shift. I was left on my own to cover the nightshift whilst a member of staff slept. An incident occurred when one of the residents came down in the middle of the night and challenged me about my ethnicity. He started to hurl racist remarks at me, which was a frightening and challenging experience for me as I had no knowledge of working with people with challenging behaviour. After a while the person calmed down and went back upstairs.

This was an unacceptable form of behaviour and both discrimination and oppression had taken place. The service user was beyond the control of understanding his own behaviour as he also suffered with minor mental health problems. This incident should not be taken lightly and the issues need to be confronted and challenged. If not this will lead many people to feel constrained by the boundaries of specific disciplines and make them feel powerless (Essed, 1991).

At the time I felt totally powerless and the ability to challenge the service user was not even taken into consideration at the time. However after reflecting this incident I felt I should have been the one in control and should have had the ability to challenge his behaviour. This particular incident was the first time I had encountered this behaviour in a working environment and to make matters worse I was the only member of staff working that particular night.

Racism is created and reproduced out of a complex set of circumstances. These surroundings can be viewed as a variety of attitudes and practices that incorporate types of behaviour, which may not necessarily be overt or intentional. This also can lead individuals to discriminate against people judged to be of another race (Essed, 1991).

Racism from a Socialist theory viewpoint tends to ignore forms of racism not determined by the workplace. From a Socialist perspective, this results in a colour-blind strategy for resisting racism in which all workers are perceived simply as workers with no individual identity or problems (West, 2003).

Understanding the elements of ethnicity and the impact of racism must not be neglected, as this may then contribute to individuals not understanding cultural differences. Thompson (1997) counter argues this point; “It is fundamental to recognise cultural differences of ethnicity… Failure to recognise this covert shift from ethnicity to race serves to mask racism and its subtle influences” (p60/61).

The framework of racism from Marxist viewpoint endorses Thompson’s outlook, at recognising specific operation and levels of racism in the workplace such as inequality and discrimination. Marxism suggests this can lead to individuals from ethnic backgrounds being exploited, and consequently the substance of feeling powerless is incorporated into groups and organisations by not recognising cultural differences (West, 2003).

Katzs (1978) cited in Dominelli (1997) argues, “that racism occurs within a social context, and individuals hold racial prejudice, but it requires the exercise of power to make it racism…’ ” (p.81).

To understand the elements of power and racism it is crucial to examine history, as it is fundamental the way racism is shaped and formed by past policies. Many Asian people who entered Britain in the 50s/60s experienced cultural differences. These differences were that of alienation, racism and the sense of being socially excluded. This has led many ethnic minorities to feel a sense of isolation due to the environment that they were not accustomed to. This kind of disadvantages faced by Asian minorities is rooted in a history of racism, which dates back to the immigration policies of the 1950’s. This led many people from ethnic minorities to be segregated into inner city areas (Skellington, 1996).

However, what need to be taken into consideration were the complexities and the environment in which this incident took place. There was a need to assimilate that the person who challenged me had little or no contact with people from ethnic background, as the location of this residential home was in a predominantly white area. This working environment made me feel uneasy as I sensed I did not fit into this organisation. Furthermore, the sudden racist abuse by the service user added to my feelings of insecurity and fearfulness.

This position was difficult for me to understand, as there was a great amount of uncertainty in not knowing what form of action to take with a person who had no control of their own actions. As a worker I was supposedly meant to be in a position of power, but when challenged the feeling of powerless was absolute. This presented me with a great feeling of being powerless and also not having the ability or experience to understand how to challenge a person who had little or no knowledge of understanding anti- oppressive practices.

Racism is often comparable with prejudice based on race. From this perspective, action based on racial prejudice and people who hold prejudiced beliefs, values and attitudes are described as ‘racist’ (Johnson, 2000).

Dalrymple and Burke (1995) suggest “Oppression itself is a powerful force. On a personal level it can lead to demoralisation and lack of self-esteem, while at a structural level it can lead to denial of rights” (p.57).

One theory of understanding oppression and discrimination, from a cultural level is the analysis of the PCS model (Personal, Cultural and Structural). In particular, the cultural influence of this model brings a whole concept of tackling discrimination, and lays the groundwork for understanding and eliminating racism. This model provides a great degree of control and can have great beneficial impact when tackling discrimination. This can enable individuals to be able to challenge collectively the dominant culture and ideology (Thompson, 1997).

Thompson (1997) suggests PCS theory and anti-discriminatory practice seeks to undermine or eliminate oppression, in particular when challenging racism in a social work context. All three levels of this model are crucial components to understand the dynamics of power for staff and service users. Many questions need to be addressed by individuals who have the power to make decisions, such as principles that challenge continuous reflection and evaluation of practices that question the use of power (Burke and Harrison, 1998).

According to Handy (1993) cultures can incorporate the ideology of a representation and become a habitual pattern, which when incorporated into organisations becomes a fixed culture. This transformation may lead to develop characteristic patterns and expectations, which this residential home was unfamiliar with, and thus, then can have a great impact on people who work in the local services.

In addition, Thompson (1997) highlights the fact that people need to be aware that any kind of social setting is characterised by differentiation, people are categorised according to social divisions such as ethnicity. These divisions then create and form the basis of the social structure. It enables organisations to form networks of social relationships, which plays an imperative role in the distribution of power, status and opportunities. Power can be used in various ways to control and be dominant in relation to skills and knowledge a person holds. Therefore, one should be able to understand the effect that their powers can have on different diverse groups in a present day society (Thompson, 2000).

Thompson (1998) denotes that a misunderstanding of cultural needs can lead to oppression and discrimination either directly or indirectly. This then can take the formation of using power incorrectly and therefore lead individuals or groups to feel powerless. Thompson (1993) asserts that no practice can be considered good practice without awareness of discrimination and its impact on both service users and practitioners.

To a certain degree, this particular organisation seem to employ poor individual practices and also inadequate policies, which can lead to structural deficiencies and have a profound effect on individuals and make them, feel powerless. Dominelli (1997) highlights “This can be seen as the colour-blind approach, this is the concept of ‘universality of treatment’, whereby equality is assumed rather than proven because all individuals and groups are treated as if they were all the same” (p.37).

Van Dijk (1993) suggests one needs to understand and acquire the perspective, the practical knowledge, the perceptiveness and the necessary theoretical framework to understand the many manifestations of racism. This will then create a structure that will tackle racism both individually and collectively, in changing policies and practices at the personal, organisational and societal levels.


In conclusion the issues surrounding power can be both positive and negative depending on how one exercises the use of power. Reflecting after the process of this essay, it has come to attention that racism and disability comprises many grey areas of discrimination and oppressive practices. This allows vulnerable people in certain groups to feel powerless and others to feel powerful.

More significant, is the need to recognise that as carers or workers we need to challenge and reinforce our own positions to challenge people’s negative perceptions regarding disabled people and ethnic minorities. This will give us the opportunity to either challenge or contribute to the disempowerment that vulnerable people are faced with.

In order to achieve an equal balance of power, one need to ensure that all vulnerable groups are given equal access to services without facing discrimination due to power being used in an oppressive practice. This will then be a start to cut across the boundaries to form effective and sustainable power that will recognise the needs of disabled people and ethnic minorities.


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