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Slow Down to Speed Up; Disability, performance and pace in social work practice

Updated: Nov 3, 2023

This reflection is around my competing neurodevelopmental and physical disabilities and needs. It is also an exploration around permission to not always know. In so many ways. But first I am going to reflect on sharing my lived experience as an Autistic social worker through academic publication.


I recently collaborated with another university around neuroinclusion resources and was asked to comment on how my physical disability impacts my neurodivergence. It was a timely request for me. With regard to my neuro-identity, I am fairly confident, I am proud of my differences and aware of my ever-evolving strengths. I am also in connection with what I need to enhance my lived experiences which could enable me to thrive (if I am allowed to by the contexts around me). I am also aware of how intersected identities impact and influence lived experiences of Neurodifferences and disability and have talked about this in other blog posts on this site and elsewhere.


 

So having a reflective article published in an academic journal should be fine, right?


Last month I published in the British Journal of Social Work’s special edition on lived experience. My article Swimming with the Current but Against the Tide was a reflective piece exploring aspects of myself in the context of social work practice. Writing it was a process of love, pride and self-acceptance. It was accepted fairly easily and that process also was OK.

What I soon realised however was that, as the publication date crept forward, my anxiety was increasing. I was officially opening up my lived experience for academic and public critique. I was declaring to the world my neuro identity.


But I already do that don’t I? I deliver training, I am vocal on several platforms including my own created one. So why did this feel different?



It’s a question I still don’t feel I can fully answer. Maybe I don’t need to know the “what” is different but what is influencing the “why”. For me, this is an indicator that I still do not feel safe within the social work profession to be my authentic self. As queries continue to increase in my inbox from autistic parents around social work involvement in their lives, I see the bias continues. The misunderstanding and confusion they experience and the harm perpetuated by misunderstanding and “I don’t have time” attitude as home or assessment visits become procedural and brief in a performance-driven culture. I see it in the cries for help from social work students as their needs are yet again failed to be met because of costs, lack of resources or, again, misunderstanding.


The fact that physical needs or access to resources are not being met in any context feels overwhelming, a problem too big to challenge. Yet we must mitigate harm to the children, adults and families we work with, with the colleagues we collaborate with and rely on for our own support.


So it's not just that the need itself isn't being met, it’s the impact that has.

The duty of care is not being met – for anyone.


 

Interrogating the internal


The values we hold influence the thoughts and actions we pursue. My sense of fairness, social justice and respect want to challenge and shout out against discrimination and that, at times, overrides the personal uncertainty of risk should I do so. But that doesn’t change the lasting residue of imposter, being judged. A justified paranoia I don’t quite cut it in the eyes of my profession.


It’s a work in progress for me, intrapersonally, that follows though after the writing of the words, sharing of ideas, opening up for critique.


I think of the student, the parent, team manager in a similar situation, doubting themselves in their roles and positions of worth as we all desperately try and interpret the norms and expectations that just don’t seem clear but have so much impact if we are perceived to get them wrong. I wonder about the internal battle of questioning and proving you are ‘good enough’ to yourself in the face of such conflicting messages from the outside and within. Those stories we grew up with, those narratives we have absorbed whether we realise it or not, the detachment from who we are to resolve the immediate pain (leaving it for later when thoughts can't stop in the 3 am space).


One aspect of my intersected me is my relationship with my physical disabilities. I have resisted support until it is clearly evident I can't continue to do so. My pain and my mobility shouts at me as I stubbornly ignore my own need. Why is this so difficult for me to accept, to sit with?


I am awash with internalised ableism. I have managed to exorcise this from my neurodivergent self in terms of my acceptance and validation of how Autism, ADHD and whatever else permeate my personhood. Yet my journey regarding my physical needs which arguably stem from both neuro and physical health, is fraught with denial. I am still associating worth with strength and that dreaded word ‘resilience’.


Questioning 'strength'


Weakness exists in my muscles. It is a fact. I am not as strong as I used to be. Walking is a challenge at times. Pain dictates what I do on a daily basis. In my head, I know that to be strong requires way more than how my legs carry me or what I can lift. I know that how I know myself, my abilities and my values are my true strengths. Yet the messages around me continue to tell me that people are preferred if they are physically adept and socially acceptable. That fit and healthy means desirable. It's not just social media, but also social work that says similar things.


Team away days that include physical activity, comments around needing to climb the stairs for home visits, and the persistent out-of-action lift in the office building. These messages continue to reinforce that physical mobility and endurance are not just preferred, its necessary to be part of the team. Couple that with a perceived risk to the profession by thinking differently, well it's not hard to see why so many disabled and neurodivergent social workers do not feel safe or valued in their organisations.


Of course, it isn't just strength and the “keep going “mantra, it's also about pace. The need for speed. We are our own worst enemy, in social work. We know the difficulties with working within timescales as well as the benefits of time to reflect on our practice and the people we work with. Yet we never challenge pace.



Pace and performance


Pace is so important for disability and neurodivergence. In fact, it is a key inclusion factor for a number of identities. As we age, we slow. We may not be able to access what we need as quickly if we are struggling to access support, finances or other resources due to poverty or socio-economic contexts. Yet we all expect everyone to work at a vaguely defined pace in a profession that would excel if it slowed down to speed up. This sense of urgency instigated by those at the very top masks the real inadequacies that are holding us back – and guess what, it isn't how fast we work. Delays in seeing a person in need or at risk isn't usually because someone walked slowly or took time to write a case note, it's because of miscommunication, lack of resources (including staff) or procedures.


It is the socially constructed expectations of what statutory social work practice looks like in terms of pace that is placed on the individual worker, the team manager for the performance of their team, and the Department of Education in their focus on performance timescales to statutory organisations. It is the problem of systemically enforced pace that reinforces the notion of social worker capability. And if you are both neurodivergent and physically disabled, this is an issue. It is an intersectional issue.


Faith or cultural routines or responsibilities, health inequalities due to racism or gender inequalities are all examples where understanding and acceptance of working with pace equally matters. Stopping for prayer doesn’t diminish your ability to respond to a family, for example, it just changes how you respond. In fact, it could enhance how you respond.


For me, the fact that difference is not factored into how fast or urgently we cut through the visiting timescales or assessment reports, shows that UK social work statutory practice is oppressive. It's based on a quantitative, paternalistic, white supremacist baseline pretty much no one can reach.


And we bask in it. Those who say it's too much are viewed as “can't handle the pace” “can't keep up” and “not cut out for real work”. Risk comes back into the narrative. Time becomes a rationale for reviewing contracts, an objective on ‘support plans’. And we wonder why we have burnout and families complain they are not being understood or getting the service they need.


 

Slow down to anti-oppressively speed up


Well, I can't rush. And yet, when allowed by the system, I get good work done. My pace isn't fast but it is effective. It allows my creativity and my ability to spot solutions, plan and explore them with families, work out what works and to, guess what, reduce risk.


So I continue to work on myself. I continue to learn from others of many different identities similar and different to mine to understand how I can shift the ghosts of ableism I did not invite to live in my house.


And with all of my writing, the message remains that this doesn’t stop with those of us within marginalised groups. It’s a job for everyone. We need you all to stop and take stock. To recognise the role you play in perpetuating the idea of risk, prejudice and pace in relation to social work practice success. It doesn’t need to be this way where everyone loses.


Risk remains for me, but, for now, it isn't stopping me. I'm not doing this to prove to you I can ‘cut it’, I'm doing this to prove to me I can. And I do believe it is beginning to work.


At my pace.



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