“Having to learn on your feet how to communicate with someone who is non-verbal and can’t sign is a real challenge,” says Zoe Joyce, a 34-year-old mature student, who graduated this week with an MA in Social Work from the University of Sussex.
"My first steps into working in this area have been a real culture shock – but I enjoy finding new ways to communicate with people."
Zoe, from Eastbourne, has spent the past two years studying in the School of Education and Social Work (ESW).
During the second year of her course she chose to specialise in working with young adults with learning difficulties and, as part of her studies, she undertook a placement at East Sussex County Council – which has helped her to land a full-time job even before graduating.
“The first year of studying was quite generic but in the second year I chose to specialise in supporting older people,” says Zoe. “There are massive benefits to supporting young adults – they have often been through the care system before and have sometimes got lost - it’s a group which is sadly often neglected.”
During her placement Zoe worked with the Transitions Team at East Sussex County Council, which supports young people aged 16-25 years old with severe and enduring disabilities.
“These are young people who are coming out of school who have to think about what’s next for them and this can be a very anxiety-provoking time,” says Zoe. "When you are an 18-year-old with learning disabilities you are legally classified as an adult, but may not be intellectually functioning as one, so they require extra support to make such decisions.”
During her seven months at the Council, Zoe certainly made an impact. Drawing on what she had learnt during her MA and from Dr Michelle Lefevre, Senior Lecturer in Social Work & Care, about using different devices to communicate with people, Zoe set about looking for creative ways she could communicate with the young people she worked with.
For one young boy aged 18, who could only make sounds and not words, Zoe worked with his school and discovered he was interested in iPads. So she set up a widget app for him which could be personalised (for example if you have a dog, a picture of that dog can be put in the animals section of the app).
Zoe worked with the young man and asked him questions about what he wanted to do when he left college. Using the app, he shared his love of pets, so she arranged for him to take part in a project working with animals on a farm.
Zoe says: “Studying at Sussex has definitely influenced my thought process when I’m working – I’m very creative and like to find new ways to converse with people. I supported a young adult with Down’s Syndrome who had poor eyesight – by creating a yellow ‘talking mat’ with symbols on for him to pick from – as yellow is the last colour you lose if your eye sight is declining.”
However, Zoe says the time at the University of Sussex which influenced her the most was when she got some vital feedback from one of her lecturers. “I once had to do a viva, where I had to be interviewed. I did fine but the feedback was that I should be a bit more ambitious.
“It got me thinking maybe I should have more confidence in what I’m doing and this is something that was definitely nurtured at Sussex and helped me to find my niche career wise.”
So what would Zoe say to anyone thinking of a career path in social work? “Social work gets a lot of negative press - but we do so many wonderful things every day that don’t get picked up.
“If you want to go into the profession – ask a social worker what keeps them in their job. Lots of people I know have been social workers for 20 to 30 years and they are still in the profession and they still love it – just like I hope to be.”
Picture (c) University of Sussex.