Today we have a brand new perspective. A woman, who wishes to remain anonymous, was sneered at by professionals when she was “just” a support worker. So she decided to qualify as a social worker! For Day 20 of our series of ‘walk in my shoes’ blogposts, this story is not specifically about dementia care but addresses the wider issues of personalisation relevant to ALL vulnerable people. It supports my central Whose Shoes? concept, namely that we need to LISTEN to everyone… (I have highlighted some parts but could have picked others – many points are powerfully made)…
Existing or living?
My name is Sam and I am a social work student. The main reason why I went to university was because I did not have a good first impression of social workers. As a support worker, I had several disagreements with social workers who seemed to make big decisions for the people I was supporting. The social workers I came into contact with were unreliable and rude, although it is important to note that I am not generalizing all social workers to be the same. It annoyed me when I attended meetings because I was ignored and I was never asked my opinion. This was even though I knew the individual the best out of everyone there (many will share this same experience). As a support worker, I felt inferior, powerless and undervalued. Therefore, after much deliberation and an argument with my dad I decided to study social work. This was to further my career in the social care field but most importantly it was to discover for myself why those social workers had so much power and could make decisions that could change people’s lives.
In my final year at university, I undertook the personalisation elective. The module was taught by an inspirational and passionate lecturer who made me feel motivated after every lecture. During the module I learnt how real social work should be and how messed up the current social care system is. My own values and opinions were broadened by guest speakers who came in and shared their personal experiences of how the personalisation agenda impacted upon them. For example, through receiving personal budgets that gave them the choice to choose what services they received. This was a whole new concept to me.
Through the teaching I found that personalisation places the individual in the driving seat of their own care, which empowers the person to make decisions about their lives. It moves away from the negative label of ‘service user’ indicating that a person is dependent upon services. Personalisation favours seeing the person as an ‘individual’ who has strengths and can be supported to live their lives rather than merely existing. Ultimately, this emphasises that the individual is the expert of his or her own life. Personalisation is a way of thinking that turns traditional social work on its head. Rather than social workers acting as the professional who dictates to the ‘service user’, personalisation social workers work in partnership and support the ‘individual’ to live their life how they wish.
This message was what I was searching for; this was the reason why I wanted to be a social worker. I feel that the personalisation module was the reason why I came to university; it provided me with the fire in my belly that I needed to go out into the real world and support people to live rather than just exist.
The experience of going out on placement with this new knowledge was not easy. After the module finished I started my final placement with a statutory organisation that provides support to adults in the community. When I started the placement, I was motivated and inspired. However, on the first day I witnessed bad practice, which immediately left me feeling deflated. As time went on I felt that the fire in my belly was slowly dying. On a whole, I found that the staff were not interested in supporting the individuals in a creative way. They just saw their job as a job. Go to work, dress the person, feed them, take them for a walk, bath them then clock off. It seemed that it was not part of their job description to actually communicate with the individual and ask them what they want. The times when I tried to challenge this approach, I felt that I was speaking a different language. I was also surprised as to how absolutely anybody could get a job supporting vulnerable adults. One 17-year-old female who had no relevant experience, qualifications and a very bad attitude was given a support worker job. When this happened, I remember thinking back to a personalisation lecture when it was said, “Why is it you need a degree to get a job in fashion, but when it comes to looking after our most vulnerable members of society any one with no qualifications can get a job as a support worker?” I feel that this is where our system needs to change.
A key example of how personalisation is abused was when I observed an annual assessment whilst on placement. A local authority care manager/social worker from the adult’s team came to the community house to carry out a review. The social worker went straight to the office, questioned the staff about risk assessments and health action plans that were missing from the individual’s care plan. The remainder of his assessment involved checking paperwork and asking the staff questions. Eventually the individual knocked on the office door and asked to come in. At this stage, I was already horrified that the individual was not included in his own assessment. The individual came in and the social worker said, “So, do you like living here?” the individual said “Yeah” and that was the main interaction during his visit. When the social worker packed up his things and put his coat on he said, “Oh yeah I forgot to ask, have you heard about this personalisation thing and the right to control?” I told him that I knew about it. However, to my disbelief he turned around and said:
“Oh well not to worry, it doesn’t really apply to him because he’s lived here so long. It will probably just cause aggravation so he doesn’t need to be told about it”.
This shocked me. I did consider that the social worker probably had a limited understanding but I found this to be very disheartening.
Despite my negative experiences, I am determined to be part of the new wave of social workers going out into practice spreading this positive message. For personalisation to work we need to educate and inform people to influence the way they perceive ‘service users’ and services. This needs to be done from an early age in schools, colleges, workplaces etc. I know nothing is going to change overnight but if we can spread the personalisation way of thinking then it will eventually start to have an impact. I hope one day, if I am ever in the position where I need services, I will have the freedom and choice to choose what services I want. The personalisation module and lecturer have significantly impacted upon my views and have empowered me. I will take what I have learnt and use it in all future practice.
The final point I want to end with that I feel sums up personalisation comes from an unlikely source in Albert Einstein: “Become a man of values not of success”.
I have the feeling that this particular student will make an EXCELLENT social worker – and well done to the lecturer who can be proud to have maintained and stoked the “fire in the belly”!