Making life that bit better

A job that is not only about tolerance but about equality
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The Independent Online

Daniel is more than the sum of his symptoms; he is an individual. Someone else with the same physical disability may need very different care. And this is the root of the social model of disability; what social workers specialising in disability are there to address. The skill of social work is not in understanding the medical causes and treatments of disability, but in matching the individual needs of a patient with the leviathan of care providers and services available. And by integrating an individual into the system, you help them access the care they need to become independent, and realise their individuality.

"It's all about promoting independence and helping people to lead as full a life as possible," says Dean Lloyd-Graham, 47, a locum social worker for Southend-on-Sea Borough Council. "All the people you help are individuals who need unique care." Lloyd-Graham sees that they get this by providing assessments of the care needs of disabled people, visiting them to see how much and what kind of care they need to prevent their condition worsening and allow them to live a fuller, more independent life. "We're gatekeepers of resources," he says. "Our job is to explore with people ways they can cope better with disability."

It is a job that many come to later in life. While Lloyd-Graham spent his 20s as a hairdresser, Martin Chainani, 38, was a hippy. Travelling with the Peace Convoy in India made Chainani want to work with the disadvantaged, and when he returned to the UK he worked on an adventure playground for disabled children. "It was just a lot of fun," he says. "I'd never met a disabled child before I did that job, but I really enjoyed it. Children would arrive, and they'd be insecure and shy, but by the time the scheme had finished they'd completely changed." Now Chainani works at Hammersmith Hospital's specialist centre for paediatric muscular disease. "If you're told your child has muscular dystrophy, you need to make changes to your life," he says. "I give people that map: these are the things you'll need over the years and here's how you get it."

While some of Chainani's work is for the trust that runs the unit, much is for the Muscular Dystrophy Campaign. Chainani worked in local government for nearly a decade before getting fed up with the bureaucracy. "Working for a charity has allowed me to be more creative," he says. "I've done things I wouldn't have been able to do in the public sector - with all the paperwork I wouldn't have had time." Since starting work for the Muscular Dystrophy Campaign Chainani has done research and has started setting up groups providing support and training for special needs teachers to make them aware of the needs of children with muscular dystrophy.

Advocating the needs of the disabled is a particular focus for those who work with people whose communication with the mainstream is impaired by deafness and blindness. "Deafness is not a visible disability so it's not really recognised," says Brian Crellin, 64, a sensory deprivation social worker for Somerset County Council. "And there's a degree of ridicule." It's a hostility that can in turn make the deaf and blind community suspicious of outsiders. "Getting to know deaf people and be understood by them is hard," he adds. "Unless you understand their cultural base, you won't be able to communicate with them."

It's that communication barrier that makes working with people with sensory deprivation a specialism within disability social work. To bridge it you really need an understanding of British Sign Language and more, a grounding or at least an interest in the culture. Not all social workers start off as hairdressers or hippies. Crellin is a third generation worker with deaf people, his grandfather was deaf and an advocate for deaf rights whose passion brought the whole family within its orbit. Now Crellin works with and for deaf and blind people with mental health problems. "One of the main problems for deaf and blind people is accessing services," he says. "Because of a lack of communication and understanding, there is a lack of services."

Despite the communication difficulties deaf and blind people face, they usually have a lifetime to discover what services are available where. Most victims of traumatic brain injury have no chance to prepare. It's a disability which strikes suddenly and often young, as a result of botched suicide attempts, drug overdoses, traffic accidents, meningitis, and strokes.

The suddenness and acuteness of the affliction can mean that a victim's normal social relationships break down, and makes organising support particularly complex. "Traumatic brain injury can cause very complicated problems," says Patti Simonson, 56, head of social work at the Royal Hospital for Neuro-Disability in Putney. "People's personalities change and their families disintegrate because they can't cope. Often partners leave and abandon their loved ones."

Working with people at a time of such acute change in their lives makes for a difficult environment but in all the bleakness you offer some hope. "You can make a difference with the family when everything else has gone away," says Simonson. "You can't make things as they were, but you can make the best of a bad job."

It's a sharp contrast to the popular image of social workers as well meaning but ineffective. "It is not wishy washy," Simonson adds firmly. "You're using legislation to weave your way through the system. Making legislation work for people is a skill, with tangible results. You're protecting people and advancing their independence."

The lowdown

How much will I earn?

Qualified social workers start on around £19,000 a year, with most earning between £23,000 and £30,000. High flyers can expect up to £45,000. More can be made working as a locum.

Where will I work?

According to the British Association of Social Workers, there are 25,000 employers of social care workers nationwide. 150 of these are local authorities: the rest are charities. Most social workers work in the community.

What qualifications do I need?

Since 2003 the required qualification is a three year degree in social work or a masters qualification if you already have a degree.

Will I get a job on qualification?

Certainly. At present there is a national shortage of social workers. NJ

'Disabled children must be seen as children first'

Mandy Gibbons, 42, is Registered Manager of a Children's Respite Centre in Hillingdon.

"I was always interested in children, I come from a large family, with lots of younger siblings. When I first went to secondary school I chose to study childcare. After that I did my Nursery Nurse qualification. I began work in local authority nurseries as a nanny, where I started working with disabled children. Soon I became interested in not just providing care, but understanding the needs of children with disabilities and the difficulties their families face.

After a while I decided to do my social work diploma to broaden my knowledge, and understand the methodology behind the work. I was seconded to the course by the local authority I worked for, so they paid for the course and provided supervision and training materials. It was brilliant. It's difficult to study part time, especially when you're in management, as you have to give your all to the work and the study. But the course helped me understand the reasons behind care - the theories behind the beliefs.

Now my role is to manage the respite centre. In respite care we provide regular short term care packages, maybe once a week, to help disabled children to have interests and alternative activities available to them. Children come in and make friends, they enjoy coming, it allows them to develop independent skills away from their family as we all need to. The knock-on effect is that it supports the whole family.

Disabled children must be seen as children first, and have the same rights as other children. The way that disability is viewed has changed, so it's not only about being tolerant, it's about equality.

People are quite fearful about working in this area, but it's a lovely area of work to be engaged in, it's a very, very positive aspect of social work. NJ

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