The Accidental Social Worker

> 28.07.2017

In my second last year of high school I met with a careers adviser. She wasn’t a lot of help—saying I could do anything I wanted. I knew I couldn't. My doctor had put me on an invalid pension the year before and told me, as a result of an accident when I was eleven—when my foot went in a moving wheel of a train—I’d never have the physical capacity to work.

I’d wondered if he knew anything about me, the ‘me’ that’s not my foot, and challenged his prognosis. There’s heaps of jobs I could do sitting down and I’d no intention of never working. He countered with practicalities like physically getting to a workplace, which would, predictably, involve walking; not to mention all the mundane activities of daily living.

So I accepted the invalid pension, but not his premise.

Try saying ‘valid’ then say ‘invalid’ the same way. I knew that wasn’t me.

The year after finishing school I enrolled at the University of New South Wales. If you know the campus, you’ll know it’s not disability friendly. It’s long and narrow with a steep climb from Anzac Parade to Botany Street. The campus got the better of me in the first semester; ulcers covering the sole of my foot and an infection delivering me to Royal Prince Alfred Hospital for a month—my home away from home.

The defeat cut my confidence to the core. Maybe my doctor was right? Maybe I’d have to opt for plan B.

I had a Plan B. Two years earlier I’d gone to Cairns and discovered the beaches to the north. At Trinity Beach there was a shack for sale, across the road from the sand. It cost nineteen thousand dollars. I could become a professional beach bum on a pension and do whatever I wanted, forever.

I did go to Cairns, for a holiday, after leaving hospital. Then I started to plot my future. I researched what jobs I could do sitting down—medicine, teaching, nursing and mountaineering were struck out. A crucial criteria was to work with people, I wanted to make a difference to the lives of others, to do something constructive for children who found themselves in situations where there was no-one to emotionally support them, no-one asking what they wanted or needed, as I’d experienced.

After years of solitude and hospital admissions I didn’t want to be trapped in an office pushing paper around. Social Work was one of my options.

Then I looked into the location of faculties and where I could park on campus (I was eligible for an on-site parking sticker). Social Work at Sydney University won.

There was one fly in the ointment, I had no idea what Social Workers did. I’d only met two social workers before, once each, and the encounters had not been a credit to their profession.

In my first social work tutorial I was stumped by the opening question, “Why do you want to become a Social Worker?”

There were reasonable responses somewhere inside me but the only answer I could think of was “So I can sit down.” Not the right reply. Luckily, the tutor didn’t start with me. I’d heard half the group’s answers before it was my turn and I cobbled together a coherent statement, hoping I seemed ideologically sound.

Four decades on I know I accidentally made the right choice. My social work career—the people I’ve met as clients and colleagues—have enriched my life and I can’t imagine a preferable alternate path.