Successive UK policy makers since the early 1970s have proposed a role for social workers in meeting the wider needs and aspirations of UK citizens by acting as a source of advice and connecting people into wider circles of support to sustain their independence and wellbeing. However laudable as a direction for social work this ambition may be, it will fail to meet people’s hopes, wishes and needs if social workers do not first have a strong understanding of the social model of disability, independent living and the forces of institutionalised disablism which they will need to overcome. It is over 30 years since Oliver developed the social model of disability however, social work still has a chequered relationship with the model and the challenge it brings of truly giving up professional power and devolving it back to people.
During 2018, Ruth Allen, Chief Executive of the British Association of Social Workers gave the following description of the profession:
“Social Work is about life, treasuring humanity, building connections, sharing and promoting fairness. It is about creativity, care and love – being there to help people overcome obstacles and oppression that hold them back. For people using our services, a social worker should be someone to trust and believe in – someone who helps you believe in yourself. Sometimes we must hold boundaries, protect rights, advocate and challenge. We are always in the midst of the messy stuff, findings way forwards”
We have formed a collective of social work practitioners, people, researchers and educationalists whose shared love of creative arts and music has led us to discover that we also share a singular belief in people and passionate commitment to uphold people’s right to self-determination. People are the expert of their own lives, their wishes, feelings and beliefs should direct how they are supported to live them. We also are discovering a shared commitment to research, reflection and continuous improvement of standards of practice education. We advocate for an approach to social work, which draws from the idea of being servants not masters of people whose lives social workers have the privilege to be a part of. We call our approach rights-based. Drawing on a strong traditional of critically reflective practice which is central to social work education and ethics. We believe that rights-based practice is rooted in critical thinking about the role of the social worker. That social work interventions are not neutral and that the very act of attempting to understand any complex human system will result in attempts being made to change it. The best social workers are active agents within the system, tackling the structural causes of disadvantage and injustice. Whilst others talk of alliances, we see social work assuming the role of accomplice working alongside people and their communities in subverting the status quo enough to disrupt and effect positive and sustainable change.
Integrating human rights within social work practice is entirely consistent with the global definition of social work and the profession’s mission to promote social justice. We suggest that rights-based practice requires social workers to embrace socio-legal practice which amplifies people’s voices and ensures their wishes, feelings and beliefs are central to decision making. As a global profession with a global identity, social work transends being merely an agent of the state but rather has a role in securing justice for those who are ‘state-less’ through upholding the inherent dignity of all people and ensuring universal access to the full range of human rights. By state-less we mean those who are denied the right to a relationship, the right to marry and have children, the right to register to vote and participate in elections, the right to have a job and own a house. As long as our health and social care systems remain stubbornly fixed on old styles models of investing in ill health there will be a continuing role for social workers in advocating for people’s right to live healthy, happy lives as active citizens.
Rights-based social work practice with adults is more than a simplistic repositioning of ideas of risk management, rights and responsibilities. It is about a social care future where social workers work in partnership with people to co-create the future they would want for themselves. Adult social work is increasingly being tested within public arenas such as the media and the courts. Public scrutiny is rightly challenging the approach social workers have taken to answer the moral and ethical dilemmas they face when balancing their professional judgment between protection imperatives and the desire to uphold personal autonomy. Each case ruling before the Courts bring a further refinement of thinking about the nuances within human rights law, including the Mental Health Act and the Mental Capacity Act, with significant implications for the profession
If we are to keep social work relevant, we need to reclaim the profession by paying attention to creative approaches which innovate and improve our relationships with the people we are here to serve. We advocate for a new bohemian movement in social work which blends the positive, progressive and creative with a humanist understanding of the art of people, cultures, love and a dash of science to add colour. Good luck to all the social work students who will find themselves graduating and applying for their professional practice role this year. And for those experienced practitioners, who believe that you should never stop learning and being open to critical reflection on your practice, who are returning to study and further social work education. As a social worker you will have the chance to inspire, challenge, provoke, reflect and make a real difference to people’s lives. Never feel embarrassed talking about love and hope. Expect to make mistakes, it’s only human, be open and honest when you do, and you will find they make you a better social worker. Never compromise on upholding rights and being an advocate for social justice. Prepare yourself. Take a deep breath. Step into the messy stuff with us.