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I trained a long time ago when Neil Thomson’s Anti-Discriminatory Practice was the buzzword in social work and Anti-Racist social work was very much at the fore. I was always uncomfortable with the emphasis being on obvious sources of oppression and discrimination and felt that other disenfranchised groups were frequently subject to oppression without recognition from within the profession. Awareness moved on and we were increasingly encouraged to think about other groups such as those with different belief systems based upon religion or culture. However, as a social worker in a Drug and Alcohol team we were frequently frustrated by the notion that all substance-using mothers were automatically bad mothers. Whilst no doubt the lifestyle associated often had a significant impact on parenting, there were many that were able to be “good enough parents” in the context of their own personal difficulties and with appropriate support. Likewise, my experience in learning disability services was that many parents were automatically under scrutiny from the moment of conception and primarily due to their label.
Anti-discriminatory practice becomes an intellectual activity.
As society becomes more diverse, it seems we have to question even more what this means and how we can be sure we really are engaged in anti-discriminatory practice. More and more people are opting to live in increasingly diverse ways and often as a result of societal inequalities, which we social workers have always ideologically sought to advocate for. For example, more and more people are choosing to adopt alternative approaches to health or opt out of mainstream education. An increasingly aging population and same sex marriages mean that care homes face the challenge of managing uncomfortable views around sexual orientation in that context, in the same way that many older adults have experienced oppression around expression of sexuality, as the home tries to balance that with fears around safeguarding in the context of capacity and consent. The assessment frameworks we use generally apply benchmarks based on norms deriving from the mainstream, by which not all can arguably be measured. There is a danger that we might succumb to the notion that by virtue of our social work status we never discriminate because and we are committed to this belief system by virtue of our training and practice code of ethics. Anti-discriminatory practice becomes an intellectual activity and not translated to practice.
How do we as agents of the state balance the competing demands we face?
The question is, perhaps, how do we as agents of the state balance the competing demands we face? Many social workers have been increasingly uncomfortable with their role as agents of the state but justify their involvement by virtue of the role of advocating for the disenfranchised. At what point does this become untenable? Can we really truly engage in prejudice-free practice whilst hitting targets often based on research or outcomes of serious case enquiries which cannot always be appropriately extrapolated out?
Education is key, of course, so that misconceptions and prejudicial assumptions do not prevail within the profession. To that end, my guess is that we need to move on from the emphasis on anti-racist social work so as not to make assumptions about discrimination and oppression experienced by those that many be regarded as automatically privileged.
Good practice was reserved to whether we would be able to meet the budget…
I was fortunate in early practice to have a supervisor who adopted an eclectic approach to supervision, often employing psychodynamic models of supervision to reflective practice. This forum provided the opportunity to continue to discuss these issues and how they shaped my practice. However, by the end of my career, I was being supervised by an unqualified person whose remit was case management and ensuring the waiting list remained short. Therefore “good practice” was reserved to whether we would be able to meet the budget and work in such a way so as to avoid complaints. Ironically those who shouted the loudest often won and the drive at the time for personalisation meant that the younger disabled community were often able to write wish-lists about their desired lifestyle; whilst older people, from a different generation where self-advocation was less common and respect for the “cradle to grave” services, were very much oppressed. They had cultural needs and wants that played second fiddle to other more “worthy” groups.
As I recall from my practice, it was often down to the individual worker to be open minded to challenging oppression that might exist outside of other “isms” that were more easily recognised and challenged. Being out of practice and hearing more about how fringe groups within society experience prejudice and discriminatory practice first-hand tells me that sadly not much has changed. The opportunities for social workers’ assumptions to be tested increase and so our expertise at balancing advocating for the rights of the oppressed against our role as protector of the vulnerable needs to keep pace.
How can we ensure we do this?
Through education, a rethink of supervision, and less reactive practice, is my guess. The idea of user-consultation and participation needs to extend beyond those groups formally recognised as oppressed or discriminated against. Increasingly we need to recognise that it might not just be poverty, religion, disability, or ethnicity, that renders someone disenfranchised in society but also those who are socially excluded in other ways. There are a variety of ways that people are judged for their choices as they don’t subscribe to the expected norms; arguably those needs are as valid and worthy of consideration as any other.
By an anonymous Social Worker