SALLY JENKINSON, a carer for children with disabilities, is also a gifted poet. Here she explains how her work inspires her writing
CARE work is rarely poeticised. It is often perceived as drab, underqualified and underfunded and, of course, it can be all of those things.
It can also be a secret universe of otherworldly interactions of wonder, achievement and triumph, one in which learning and discovery are a constant for both worker and client.
I’ve been a support worker for over a decade, mainly for children with learning disabilities. I am also a poet, working on a collection of poems exploring the support-worker experience, sensory interaction and the incredibly complex relationship between support worker and client.
In the process of working on those poems, I have discovered such a deficit in the celebration of the intricacy, tenderness and creativity of our sector. There is not much precedence for writing about the support experience in a poetic way and that’s surprising because it can be cosmic, surreal, visceral and tender — all ingredients that I look for in my favourite poetry.
Writing about social care experiences is a delicate process because confidentiality is paramount. As support workers, we are supporting another human with their private life, so many of the particulars are inappropriate to share publicly.
But I am finding creative ways to explore the poetry, magic and sensory wonder of my experience as a support worker, without revealing any exposing information about the people whom I have worked with over the years.
Every day, we are asking our clients to trust us implicitly, to support them properly, keep them safe and respect their privacy, homes and bodies. When we are trusted, when we are truly supporting someone to access the life they want to live, it is alchemic.
And there is love, make no mistake. We don’t call it love because we are performing a supportive service, a job, and to say love is inappropriate because it is not the kind of love we are taught about in books and films and pop songs. It is not agape or eros or storge. Philia is closest but still not exactly right.
Just because there is no appropriate word for it does not mean that it doesn’t exist. Love keeps us striving to provide a good service, despite bad backs, no sick pay, zero-hours contracts, the minimum wage and being able to earn a better salary in any supermarket than by delivering this complex and skilled care.
Love keeps us learning and arming ourselves to be almost-nurses, almost-teachers, almost-social workers and almost-physiotherapists when our job demands it, because, of course, all these “higher level” service providers are also desperately underfunded and in short supply. So the overspill of responsibility inevitably trickles down to the people who are there every day providing day-to-day care — the support workers.
Are we underpaid and undertrained? Undoubtedly. Is there nowhere near enough funding and resources to provide our clients with the quality of service and life that they deserve? Yes. Yet it is anything but miserable work. It is about humans, in difficult circumstances, striving to communicate, to understand each other and bring each other peace and light. We are out here, client and carer, working hard to make it work every day.
There is a problem with media representation in our sector. People with disabilities are often portrayed in films as defined by the misery of their disability and disabled characters are often played by able-bodied or neurotypical actors.
Support workers are either not portrayed at all or we only reach the media in news scandals about poor care or mistakes being made.
I would never presume to write about the experience of a person with learning disabilities from their perspective. But the relationships between the people being supported and the support workers, the ground we cover together, the sensory explorations and communication, the successes and failures that we encounter as a team, I know something of those.
The narrative of people with learning or physical disabilities must be shifted. I see this happening, slowly, as artists with learning disabilities tell their own unique and complex stories in creative and original ways in organisations as diverse as Misfits Theatre Company in Bristol and the incredible Stopgap Dance Company, who I was lucky enough to see perform recently. The narrative of support work as unskilled and unimportant must change too. I long to see our sector championed as complex and proficient and our work funded to pioneer new and creative ways of supporting our clients’ needs, desires and passions.
The poetry in my line of work is in the collaboration between carer and client — the trust, the communication and the hard-fought, unsung relationships that we work so hard to build together.