UH graduate students work to break stigma
UH Graduate College of Social Work students pooled their efforts to help a local community agency battle the stigma of intellectual and developmental disabilities by implementing an awareness campaign last month.
Graduate students from the Social Work Methods: Community Practice course spent last spring conducting an assessment of the Mental Retardation Needs Council of Harris County and developed an awareness campaign well after the course was over.
"The rest of the groups in the class were finished by April, when we got our grades," Laura Lopez, a second-year social work graduate student who enrolled in spring, said. "Our event just happened to get planned for after the semester was over, and we committed to it."
Taught by social work associate professor Steven Applewhite since his arrival at UH in 1992, the course is offered during the spring and is required for students in the college.
"Students first conduct a community or organizational needs assessment, identifying problems and conducting surveys to gain information," Applewhite said. "They then develop intervention strategies that provide viable solutions to identified problems and mirror what community residents and organizational leaders define as critical concerns."
The MRNC, formed in June 2001, supports individuals with mental retardation and other developmental disorders and serves as a community advocacy umbrella group, according to the organization’s Web site.
MRNC agencies include the Harris County Department of Education and Early Childhood Intervention.
"All of the agencies are appointed by the Harris County Commissioners Court," MRNC chair Judith Kantorczyk said. "They are required to work with mental health people to join the council."
Students worked closely with Kantorczyk while conducting their research and spent five weeks interviewing MRNC members.
"Ten of the 14 (members) we interviewed brought up the stigma of intellectual and developmental disabilities as a main concern," Lopez said. "Our group decided to help the MRNC combat this issue with an anti-stigma campaign."
Intellectual and developmental disabilities encompass disorders such as autism, a condition that can limit an individual’s ability to interact socially.
While students in the group admitted some preconceived notions and initial reluctance to study IDD because they lacked experience, they all took the challenge head on.
"We all had very strong ideas about people who had it," Lopez said. "But we found out those ideas were totally off."
The group interviewed representatives of the MRNC during their office hours and had no direct interaction with people with IDD but learned how detrimental the stigma was, Lopez said.
Students often encounter frustrations and anxieties while working with local communities, Applewhite said.
"It takes time for the communities to understand why the students are there," he said. "There is a transition from (students) wanting to get the work done and get a grade to a heightened level of awareness and wanting everything to actually be good."