By Zoe Joyce, MA social work student at the University of Sussex
I’ve always been a creative person and when I started a MA in social work at the University of Sussex, I looked for opportunities to use these skills.
Through practice development workshops and support from my lecturers, I explored new ways of communicating such as Egan style interviews, digital technology and activities that supported practice with children. This work helped me realise I could utilise my creativity to promote communication with a variety of service users.
But it was a placement in my second year that really allowed me to put this into practice. I worked in the transitions team at East Sussex council, which supports 16-25 year olds who have a severe and enduring disability, and who hold an education health and care plan.
One of my tasks was to complete an assessment with a young man who had Down’s syndrome and a severe learning disability. The young man did not communicate verbally, use sign language, or write. So my first consideration was how could I involve him in his assessment in a meaningful way, without having to rely on other people’s narrative?
I spent time at the man’s college, using observation to learn how he made day-to-day decisions and what his strengths were. I also liaised with the education staff who supported him and utilised their expertise. It was through these observation sessions and staff accounts that I realised the young person had a particular interest in using an iPad.
With the support of education staff, we purchased an app for the iPad that allowed pictures, photos, and Makaton symbols (from a language programme that uses signs and symbols to help people communicate) to be added to support communication. The college then worked closely with the young man to build his confidence in communicating through the iPad.
At the right stage in the process, I visited the young man at his college and asked him specific questions relating to his assessment. Through the use of the app, the young man was able to inform me beautifully that he wanted to work with animals when he left college and that he would need support to communicate. The app can now be used as a living tool for the young man to use when communicating in other aspects of his life such as shopping.
Using an iPad removes the stigma often associated with dated communication tools such as picture cards.
I think it’s important for everyone to recognise that verbal communication only forms a small part of how a person communicates. There is space, and it is often necessary within our social work practice, to be creative with how we engage and record the ‘voices’ of our service users.
This week, I’m graduating from the University of Sussex. As all training and qualified workers will know, we work towards demonstrating how we meet the professional capabilities framework. Communication skills and advocacy form an important part of not only meeting this, but also in supporting relationship-based practice and the ethical value base of social work.
For me, the importance of being able to support people to communicate effectively has become the defining factor of my identity and individuality as a practitioner. Since qualifying I’ve been fortunate to be offered a full time NQSW post with the transitions team, and I’m very much looking forward to where my creative digital communication skills will take me.