‘And that is why you should fund this care package,’ I finished, keeping my hands still and looking directly at the people clustered across the table from me. I was very impressive, apparently. Very professional. I had got myself a Masters degree and I knew how to use it.
I had also qualified as a social worker. I was arguing before the panel which controlled social care funding for disabled people. I was rarely refused funding for anything I asked the panel for. I had been taught to fight my cases by my practice teacher, who had given me my on-the-job training.
‘We are tenacious,’ she said ‘We are like a little terrier dog which will keep yapping and tugging at people’s trouser legs despite the fact that we are getting kicked. We do not give up.’
The fights usually took place between us and local authority managers. The already limited budget was being cut by the year, what with the banking crash and huge government cuts which we all knew were coming. The beleaguered managers were desperately counting every penny that was spent from the public purse, and demanding reams of paperwork to justify the spending. We had to prove that by providing a service, we would be preventing death or serious ill health, otherwise the service was a ‘want’ and not a ‘need’.
This clashed with the social work ethos of improving quality of life; defending the rights of disabled people to have the same quality of life as everyone else.
My practice teacher didn’t like it when I talked too much about rights; she fought the panel mainly because she did not like the purse-holders to question her judgement. She told me that being ‘too political’ could jeopardise my placement, and cause me to fail, but in the end I passed.
I was duly let loose on an unsuspecting population of disabled people, to practise my idealistic method of social work. I listened to so many stories, every day, and I tried to put the stories into words that would help. Words that would unlock the keys to the coffers, and provide the thing that most people were asking me for – support; just that extra little bit of support that was needed for them to live their lives.
I unleashed my words onto the unsuspecting panel of managers. I set up chains of cause and effect, consequences to not providing this or that service, which could cause all sorts of breakdown – family breakdown, the loss of free support, inability to go shopping – all would end, ultimately, in death or serious illness.
I was very rarely refused, at first, but as the budget strings were pulled tighter and tighter, I realised that all that I had fought for for my ‘cases’, was granted at the expense of other cases; maybe equally as deserving but with a less eloquent social worker. As we began to be required to close cases as quickly as we had opened them, they began to revolve – closed to one worker, open again to another a couple of months later.
I found it hard to sit in people’s houses, to see how difficult their lives were, and to offer no help, not really, other than those things that would sustain life (or maintain a living death, in some cases). I started to wonder how they would feel if they read my stark assessments of their cases…I hadn’t thought about the fact that these things remained on file, on record. I had thought only about tugging the heart strings of the panel, determined to get some support for somebody for 6 months; let them take that course, go to college, see the football with friends…the gains were short-lived, often reversed by the next social worker who was using more stringent criteria: ‘We don’t fund that service.’
Eventually, the budget cuts meant that even the job I had been doing no longer existed. Rather than deal with disability, the Government decided to pretend it didn’t exist. The framework that was set up to help returning service men, disabled by war, was dismantled slowly. People were accused of malingering, making false claims of illness and hardship; they must be ‘disabled’ through choice. The crutches were kicked from under their arms, even those ex-servicemen accused of greed.
And my career as a social worker was almost over…