The Meandering Social Worker

wandering : wondering : learning

Archive for the tag “understanding”

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.


Making Assumptions

Some years ago I worked in a social work team where one of the social workers came from Glasgow.  Now this team was in southern England, nearly as far from Scotland as you could get.  When a newly qualified social worker joined us who also happened to be from Glasgow it was assumed that these two would have a natural understanding, and were put together for supervision purposes.  After all they were both from the same country and a long way from home, and the older more experienced social worker would surely be the ideal one to support the new worker?

What, in our southern ignorance, we did not realise was that they came from opposite sides of Glasgow.  Opposite cultures within the same city.  Opposing football teams to support.  Natural enemies even.

Fortunately their professionalism enabled them to overcome the differences in their cultures, and no doubt shake their heads at the southerners’ ignorance.

It’s easy to make assumptions like that.

Even in the setting up of asylum teams in the 1990’s we made the same mistakes.  There was somehow an assumption that because asylum seekers were in the same situation, escaping war torn countries, it was sometimes overlooked that they had escaped from opposing countries in the same war!  With hindsight it was obvious, but what foolish mistakes were made at the time.

While I was travelling in Siberian Russia for a while I happened to stay for a week in a town where I was the first European they had seen in living memory.  The evening before I was leaving a young English backpacker arrived in a bar on the other side of town.  Immediately telephone calls were made and mechanisms put in place to put us in touch with each other.  Let’s call him Jay.  It was naturally assumed, that being from the same country, we would want to meet up and talk.

Actually it was good to meet Jay, less because we were both English than because we were both travellers and could compare travel notes.  Having the same first language was merely an advantage.

The impression was given that if two Russians found themselves alone in a foreign country they would want to meet.  But I wonder if that is true?

Jay and I were several years apart in age, he was a recent graduate taking a gap year while I had studied in later life, he came from a relatively privileged background while I definitely originated from “working class” stock.  I was travelling by car, he was backpacking.  Back in England it was unlikely we would have naturally met up and socialised.

Staying in an Andean village, well stuck actually due to a breakdown, the villagers would come rushing over saying “amigo, amigo?” every time another European passed through.  The same assumptions were being made.

On another occasion I met two young English girls in a backpackers’ hostel in Costa Rica.  Well, I say ‘met’, but that is probably too strong a word for it.  We happened to be staying in the same dorm room in the same hostel.  They were clearly completely confounded to find someone old enough to be their mother, maybe even their grandmother, staying in such a hostel and never managed to look me in the eye such was their complete inability to know how to handle such a situation.

Age, class (yes it still exists), wealth, education, employment, sociability, family, sexual orientation, geographical location, politics, religion, hobbies and interests.  These and more are all potential divisive factors even in our home countries.  Sure, they can all be overcome, but how many times have I seen police and ‘front line’ social and health workers gravitate to share socialising because their jobs bring them into natural contact and there is a sense of safety in that familiarity?  And why is it unusual to see CEOs down the pub with the postman or plumber?

I’m not suggesting its right or wrong, it just is.  The lovely people in that small Siberian town might be surprised at how different the lives are of people from Moscow, and that maybe the mere sharing of the same language is not a foundation for anything more than a brief passing friendship, just as was my contact with Jay.

Scottish, English, African, Latin American, indigenous; wealthy and poor; young and old; educated or not (which has nothing to do with intelligence); capitalist, environmentalist, socialist; and more.  We are all a mixture of different ingredients, unique in our own way.  As we practice that difference in our own lives, let us also remember the differences in those we work with, both as colleagues and clients.

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