Joan Cummings

Dr. Joan E. Cummings, a highly respected social worker, educator, scholar, and social justice activist, passed away on February 6, 2012. 
 
I have known Joan for over 50 years because of our involvement in social work, social work education and community work.  It is impossible in a few words to do justice to the amount and quality of her work, or to her passionate commitment to equality, social justice and community, but I will sketch some highlights of her accomplishments and contributions to social work.

She graduated from Dalhousie University, the Maritime School of Social Work, and the University of Toronto with a PhD. In 2005, Dalhousie University awarded her an honorary doctorate of laws (LLD) in recognition of her outstanding achievements in teaching and University service, scholarly, professional and community work.

Her long and distinguished career began in the 1950s at the provincial mental hospital, where she became Director of Social Work, and the Dalhousie Child Guidance Clinic where she was also the Director of Social Work.  During these years, she held teaching appointments in the Faculty of Medicine’s Department of Psychiatry and the Maritime School. In 1965, she joined the faculty of the Maritime School of Social Work (now the Dalhousie University School of Social Work) where she remained until she retired in 1996 to an adjunct faculty appointment. 
 
At the School, Professor Cummings held major responsibilities for curriculum development, taught a wide range of courses and supervised graduate research projects and field work for numerous students in many different settings.  At the same time she participated fully in University affairs, including serving on senate committees on academic planning, financial planning, physical plant, academic administration, library, student appeals, employment equity, academic computing, tenure and promotion; and she was an active member of the Dalhousie Faculty Association. 

In addition to her work at the School and wider University, she made significant contributions to the Canadian Association of Schools of Social Work (now the Canadian Association for Social Work Education), the academic and accrediting body for social work education in Canada, through her work on the national executive, the board of accreditation, standing committees, and the women’s and disability caucuses.  She was a leader locally, regionally and nationally in developing social work curriculum with respect to social inclusion and critical analysis of poverty, gender, race, disability, age. 

Joan Cummings was a member of the professional association of social workers since her student days becoming an honorary life member in 2007.  She held prominent positions during the early days of the CASW Halifax Mainland Branch and its’ successor, the Nova Scotia Association of Social Workers (NSASW). In 1963, she co-chaired a committee established to draft legislation to incorporate the first provincial association of social workers in Nova Scotia. In this same year, she was appointed to the first Board of Examiners.  In 1970, she co-chaired a committee to explore broadening the basis for membership in NSASW to include persons working in the field of social welfare who did not have social work degrees.  In addition, she served on the provincial council; and as chair for several ad hoc committees to prepare briefs and position papers on various social issues.  In recognition of her accomplishments and contributions to the profession, she received a Distinguished Service Award from NSASW/CASW in 1993.

Joan was very generous with her time and ability in volunteering with numerous organizations, many of which in later years focused on providing assistance to persons with disabilities.  For example, she served as vice chair, chair and past chair (1972-76) of the NS Disabled Persons Commission (DPC).   She led reviews of government policies in the area of disability, travelled with others on the Commission through the Province to meet with persons with disability and their families, caregivers, disability organizations, employees in the field, in short, everyone concerned with public policy and services in the area of disabilities. 

As part of her work with the DPC and disability communities, she directed a research/service Project (the NEEDS project) to design a comprehensive framework for services for persons with disabilities.  Supported by federal and provincial funds, this project involved a partnership among government, university, and disability organizations.  Social work students, including those with disabilities, did research and field work both on NEEDS and a companion project, Team Work.  Team Work was a community based cooperative of disability organizations to build employment opportunities.  Both these projects demonstrated Joan’s strong preference for combining scholarly, educational and community development approaches to address individual and social problems.  In 1998, Joan received an Hourglass Award, a national award for outstanding leadership in the disability community. 

Throughout her distinguished career, Dr. Cummings contributed enormously to the profession, the advancement of social work education that fostered a critical understanding of the systemic nature of personal and social problems, and furthered understanding of disability.  She worked at many levels as a tireless advocate and supporter of persons with disabilities and disadvantages of many kinds. None of this work was easy; none of it was done without challenging systems, authorities, processes and procedures; and all of it was directed toward progressive social change.

Personally, I admire Joan Cummings’ many and substantial achievements even more knowing she made them in spite of the challenges imposed by her own disability, namely the progressive loss of her vision. I am grateful for her enormous strength, courage, persistence, knowledge and wisdom in making social work and social work education better and richer, and the world a fairer place.  Well done, Joan Cummings, my colleague and friend.

Joan Gilroy
NSASW Connection, March 2012