Why we must raise status of visual impairment rehabilitation workers

Following the launch of a network for rehabilitation workers for visually impaired people, chair Simon Labbett explains why it's important to raise the status of this workforce, including by introducing a statutory register.

What are rehabilitation workers?

Rehabilitation workers for people who are blind or partially sighted are qualified professionals who design and provide programmes of rehabilitation for people losing their sight or people who have always had poor sight but need to adapt to new personal circumstances. 

What services do they perform?

Their service usually include orientation and mobility training, for example, learning how to navigate road crossings and using public transport, daily living skills training, communication skills, such as learning Braille or learning to use magnifiers, or assessing for lighting adaptations.

What are their working arrangements?

Rehabilitation workers are usually employed in social services departments and frequently work alongside occupational therapists and social workers. 

What qualifications do you need?

Until recently, rehabilitation workers qualified after two years’ full-time study at foundation degree level but now an honours degree option is also available, at Birmingham City University.

What is the Vision 2020 UK Rehabilitation Workers’ Professional Network?

The network has been established to support this workforce, some of whom are the only such workers in their local authority.

What are its aims?

The network’s aims are to:

  • maintain a comprehensive list of qualified professionals;
  • bring together the profession and speak with a united voice to promote the concept of rehabilitation and early intervention;
  • to provide evidence of the size and distribution of the profession in the four countries of the UK;
  • to provide a sound evidence base to help bodies that provide rehabilitation qualification training to maintain the standards and appropriateness of their courses;
  • to use voluntary registration as the basis for the pursuit of professional registration for rehabilitation workers in the countries of the United Kingdom;
  • to promote best rehabilitation practice by publicising events and sharing information, documents, statistics and evidence.

What has been the impact on rehabilitation workers of recent trends in social care, including the increased focus on reablement, personalisation and public spending reductions?

It has been quite a challenge to get managers to see the similarity between rehabilitation for people who are visually impaired and general reablement within social care. Because they have not seen the link, it has been seemingly quite common for managers to want to apply Fair Access to Care Services eligibility thresholds to rehabilitation services. However, where rehabilitation is seen as similar to reablement, one of the downsides is that there is a managerial temptation to apply the six-week cut-off to our intervention. Six weeks is often not enough. Adapting to life and daily routines without sight is a lifetime’s task, and sometimes practical rehabilitation sessions can only be successful when emotional turmoil is reduced.

What’s it like being the only worker doing your role in your local authority?

All workers are plagued with self-doubt at some time or other. You often find yourself asking practical questions, such as ‘what’s the best way to pour boiling water from a kettle if there are also hand tremors as well as no sight?’, or, ‘what apps work best to make a mobile phone accessible to a blind person?’. Without someone to bat ideas around with or to check up on the knowledge you may have learned five years previously, it can feel a very unsupported job. How do you convince your manager that this client’s case will take longer than six weeks to “solve” if you’ve got nobody to discuss tactics with?

Is there a lack of knowledge and information about rehabilitation workers at the moment among managers and the wider workforce?

The profession has not been good about blowing its own trumpet in the past and there is a lack of clear understanding across the sector about how the social care machine works. However, I think the biggest reason is that, with only one or two workers in an authority, the service just falls under the radar and I don’t think that many local authority reporting mechanisms are geared to recording the work we do because it doesn’t fit the normal care management pattern.

What is the case for registration of this workforce?

Just imagine you are the daughter of a client who has gone blind. This unknown rehabilitation worker is teaching your dad to detect where to find a good place to cross a road, how to judge if there are cars coming, what to do if one suddenly does appear and how to not trip up on the kerb at the other side of the road. Why should I trust this worker? Teaching blind or partially sighted people, many of whom have additional disabilities, has inherent risks. We do this work alone, and we do it from the moment we qualify, without supervision. Wouldn’t you want to be sure that this person has completed a recognised course that gives them the necessary skills and didn’t do that course 15 years ago with no requirement to maintain their skills? I can’t believe managers don’t want us registered.

How do you become a member of the network?

Membership of the network is free and is open to any qualified rehabilitation worker. To become a member, please email Matt Broom at m.broom@vision2020uk.org.uk

For further information about the network or about rehabilitation work please contact Simon Labbett simon.labbett@bradford.gov.uk

 Simon Labbett is rehabilitation worker visual impairment at Bradford council and chair of the Vision 2020 UK Rehabilitation Workers’ Professional Network.

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