By Jason Batty, a newly qualified social worker soon to start employment as a local authority children and families social worker
I never used to think of myself as academically minded. I am much more of a “hands on” person, and I felt disadvantaged when it came to studying as I have Tourette’s. Tourette syndrome (TS) is an inherited, neurological condition – the key features of it are tics, involuntary and uncontrollable sounds and movements which can become more frequent at stressful or anxious times.
Five years ago, I was working for a local authority, supporting adults with learning disabilities. During a review, I was asked if I had contemplated getting a qualification to further my career. I spent time thinking and talking about it. My dad suggested a social work degree because it would open doors to a range of opportunities, but I was unsure about embarking on a course. I am also hard of hearing and need a hearing aid to boost some frequencies. Plus, I’m a father of one so I’d have to factor in school holidays and balance spending time with my son and studying.
However, I enrolled at college on an access course and did well. My hearing was not much of an issue – reasonable adjustments such as sitting at the front of the room were made and there were only a few students in my class. My Tourette’s was suppressed most of the time and people would ask me about it in a supportive way.
When I was accepted onto a social work degree I was relieved, but only for a while. I knew the work was going to be more challenging. As the start date came closer, my Tourette’s became more frequent. I was anxious so had more tics at night which kept me awake.
My university degree was franchised to a local college. So for the first two years of my course, I was sharing facilities with students much younger than me. I would be in the library doing my research and feel eyes watching me as my tics decided to make an appearance. Sometimes I would make a grunting noise (a bit like a pig) and I would hear those teens laughing. This impacted on my confidence and I wanted to avoid the library at all costs.
My first placement was in a children and young people’s residential home. This was daunting; I was unsure how they would react to my Tourette’s. Also, I was required to use a landline phone, something I wasn’t confident about in case I couldn’t hear the other person. I requested reasonable adjustments for use of the phone and the young people were understanding. I got a huge confidence boost when I was offered a temporary job at the end of my placement as I knew my positive work with them was acknowledged.
The work involved on a social work degree is challenging and, as I said, academic study did not come easily to me. And when I was anxious about assignments being due, my Tourette’s would be more frequent. This impacted on my reading – I would have to read a piece several times as I kept losing my place. My peers were supportive and understanding – everyone knew about my Tourette’s and would ask me about it, but sometimes I felt isolated. I could feel my stress levels getting higher – at times when I needed it, I lost my self-belief and confidence and I thought many times about giving up.
I made it through to the third year. My marks were average and my Tourette’s was still playing games. The last year was the most difficult – lots of reading to be done, a 10,000 word case study, placement, more assignments and a portfolio to complete. But with the resilience I had built up over the past three years of studying, I knew I could get through it.
At my second placement at a substance misuse charity, I did have worries about how families would react to my Tourette’s. I was required to use the phone even more to speak to other professionals, attend child protection conferences and so on. But from my experience working with groups, how I explain Tourette’s to people and showing confidence as a student practitioner, I was able to achieve good things for the families I worked with and gain valuable experience.
September came and I got a letter from the exam board. I had passed with a first class honours. I was so happy I cried – I had really done it. I had to work twice as hard as others but I never let my Tourette’s or hearing issues get the best of me. I know that I will be a better social worker because of my experience.