The Meandering Social Worker

wandering : wondering : learning

Archive for the tag “empathy”

Life Experience counts

An article in Community Care this week highlights the problem of the growth of the importance of academia in social work training and why the lowering of the age of qualification has its drawbacks.  Social work students with ‘life experience’ found it easier to get alongside service users and empathise with their needs better than those who had gone straight from school to college and university.

Clare Evans’ article highlights that you just can’t teach values and experience in an academic environment, often leaving this to be learnt during practice placements.  Practice placements have so much ground to cover in a relatively short space of time they are not the place to have a transformative experience in developing life experience and empathy.

There are undoubtedly some young students who, straight from school and university, have the gifts of compassion and empathy.  But by making it possible to take this path, have we done any favours to the others who are having to take this steep learning curve on the job?  Have we done any favours to the service users and the vulnerable who are the source of such learning?

It’s one of the tragedies of so many of the caring professions, and I’ve seen and experienced it in nursing as well as seeing it in social work, that the rise of the importance of academic achievement blocks so many of those with the genuine empathy and caring skills from taking the professional path.




Outrospection is the 21st Century response to the introspection of the self-help movement of the 20th Century.  Instead of making ourselves the focus of our world let’s focus on the world around us.  Go beyond the one-on-one emotional empathy we associate with therapy and psychology and develop our cognitive empathy to help whole communities.  Hey, wait a minute: doesn’t that sound a bit like the roots of social work that pre-dated the self-help movement of the last century, with pioneers such as Octavia Hill, Joseph Rowntree, the founders of the Charities Commission and the anti-slave trade campaigners?  Could this be social work’s antidote to the managerialism that has blighted our profession for the best part of twenty years?

Check out the infographic below from Roman Krznaric, explaining his take on Outrospection, and then challenge your thoughts on empathy with philosopher and professor Paul Bloom in his article “Against Empathy”.

RSA Animate – The Power of Outrospection from The RSA on Vimeo.

A deep rooted fear

autistic son letterAn anonymous woman wrote a troubling letter to a grandmother caring for her 13 year old autistic grandson for the summer holidays.  When I first saw this come up in my facebook news feed I thought (hoped) it might be a hoax, but reviewing the source of the news it seems to be real.   Even if it was a hoax someone somewhere has written it.  It represents the views of someone somewhere.

The writer may be found by the local investigating (US) police, and may be ‘punished’ in law and possibly even within their own community.  But is that enough?  In posting it here I’m going beyond my own reactions of distaste at the language used and the views expressed, I’m reminding myself not only how deep rooted prejudice can be but how that prejudice is often fuelled by ignorance, fear and lack of understanding.

What was behind the thinking of the mother who wrote this letter?  Was she just disturbed by the noise?  I’m sure most of us can relate to that at some level, even if it’s only just having to listen to someone else’s music on the bus or train, especially if we perhaps have a headache or it’s been a long day and we are tired.

No, she demonstrates opinions that go way beyond the noises this young man made. She shows a lack of empathy and understanding for the grandmother of this young man, an ignorance of his disability.

But there’s something else in there too.  Her tone is one of anger.  What is she angry about?  Where does her anger come from?  Is she angry because she thinks her taxes are going to support other people, especially those she views as unable or unwilling to contribute back (as she clearly views this young man), as she says “what right have you to do this to hard-working people”?  She’s not going to be alone in her thinking like that, but it’s not just this one young person who is the target of such thinking: anyone who is disabled, whether from birth or accident, unable to work or ‘contribute’ to society in a recognised (and, in the view of some, acceptable) way, will be the target of this form of prejudice.  The logical progression of that kind of thinking is to kill off the elderly too!

But it seems that underlying all this is fear (it usually is).  She writes “[the noise he makes] scares the hell out of my normal children”.  Why are they scared?  Because she is scared?  Of course: children pick up on the fears and prejudices of the adults around them; they are replicating her emotions.  But what is she scared of?  What she doesn’t understand?  What she can’t control?  Scared it could have been one of her children the dice rolled that way for?  That’s something else many people can relate to: how many expectant parents, when asked whether they are hoping for a boy or girl, respond that they just want their baby to be healthy (ie, normal)?

This letter is cruel and bullying, written to cause hurt and fear.  The writer is, I believe, subconsciously transferring her fears to the recipient.  Deep down I believe she knows she’s wrong: she ends her letter by saying, “nobody wants you living here and they don’t have the guts to tell you”, but she too didn’t have the guts to sign her name to the letter.  Why?  No doubt she knows how society in general will view her lashing out at this grandmother, and that the grandmother will garner the most sympathy.

So much of social work is about raising questions.  Too little do we find even most of the answers.  Perhaps if or when the writer of this letter is identified those involved will be able to find the time to start asking some of these questions and deal with the cause and not just the consequences of her fears.

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