Repeat prescription

Life would be so much easier if you could live it backwards,
wouldn’t it? It’s just another of God’s little jokes that all the
important decisions we have to make, and which subsequently govern
our lives, have to be made early: who our friends are, who we fancy
as a lifetime partner and, perhaps most crucial of all, how we’re
going to earn a living. And the trouble is that we have such a
flimsy basis for making such decisions.

When I was a kid, I was sure I wanted to be a lawyer. This was
based on two factors; my favourite programme on the telly was
Perry Mason, and people kept telling me I was
argumentative. Now of course with the benefit of hindsight I know
that Perry Mason was a load of nonsense: the likelihood of
unmasking the real murderer just before the judge’s summing-up is
about as likely as Southampton reaching the cup final two years in
a row; and my wish to confront authority was hardly ever based on
fact, simply on irritation, not a particularly good basis for a
legal career.

Unfortunately for me, the law was one of the few professions that
blind people had broken into, so that all the careers advisers who
should have talked me out of it said with relief, “oh, that’s a
good idea”. So I spent the two most miserable years of my life
wading through textbooks on the law of property, contract and tort,
and almost going insane. What I did discover, all too late in the
day, was that my impatient mind, and hatred of pettifogging rules
and pettifogging people, made me wholly unsuited for the legal

The problem with living your life forwards, of course, is that at
the time when you know least, you think you know the most. Would I
have listened if a careers adviser had told me that most lawyers
spend very little of their time in court; that most of the people
who you try to help are unhappy and contentious; and that just as
you have mastered the law, some klutz of a politician will come
along and alter it. I doubt it!

So, by the same token, would well-intentioned and good-hearted
youngsters opt for social work if they were told that it takes more
than good hearts and good intentions to change lives, that they
might spend more time in team meetings than with clients, that when
they attempted to exercise discretion and caution before charging
into a situation they would be accused of neglect, and that when
they tried to act decisively and quickly to pre-empt trouble they
would be accused of being busybodies and interfering in people’s

I’ve talked before about some of the perversity social workers have
to put up with from journalists, who can criticise from the safe
perspective of hindsight, and from clients too. As a blind person,
I am still automatically allocated a social worker, and I’m all too
familiar with my own kneejerk reaction, which is to ask why on
earth I need one most of the time, and why they can’t react much
more quickly on the occasions when I do need them. Rarely does
logic break in to suggest that only if you’re allocated one can
they possibly react quicker. I suppose, though, that the mere fact
that few of us would follow our chosen profession if we knew what
it would be like is the justification for having to live our lives
forward. And just occasionally, reassurance does arrive just in

The other day I did a talk at a conference on independent living
for disabled people. My job was to outline the history of the
independent living movement, and some of the attitudes to it that
had to be overcome before the idea was embraced. At the conference
were people who explained with searing clarity why this was
actually the difference between “living” and “existing”.

I was moved, and I’ve heard it all before. Afterwards a social
worker in the audience said that it had led her to re-evaluate her
whole attitude to what she did. It suddenly makes you aware that
all those meetings you attend where you appear to be repeating
yourself can have a real impact; and that people at the front line
are not often receiving the words of encouragement they need if
they’re to sustain a full career in the caring professions. Perhaps
in all those briefings and conferences that seem to make up so much
of a professional’s life, a little more encouragement and
reassurance needs to be built in.

Peter White is the BBC’s disability affairs

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