The Poetics of Support Work

As I work slowly on my new poetry collection ‘Sensory’, which aims to explore my experience as a care and support worker over the last decade, I have been trying to write more openly about that other side to my working life. In December last year I wrote this piece for the Morning Star exploring the poetics of support work. There’s a link to the actual article here, but I’ve also included the text below along with some of my favourite photos of support work-in-action (used with parental permission). Big love to everyone at the coal face of social care, staff, service users and families. Things are so hard right now as we face cut after cut to the vital funds we need to do the work we do together, but I SEE YOU. We are all working so hard to keep our heads above water, and I hope and pray everyday that things will change soon. xxx


The Poetics of Support Work

Care work is rarely poeticized. It is often perceived as drab, underqualified and underfunded. Of course, it can be all of those things. But it can also be a secret universe of otherworldly interactions – of wonder, achievement and triumph. It is a journey in which learning and discovery are a constant, for both worker and client.

I am a support worker, working mainly for children with learning disabilities. I have been doing this work for over a decade. 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 these poems, I 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, which is 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. 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 supported over the years.

Every day, we are asking our clients to trust us implicitly – to support them properly, to keep them safe, to respect their privacy, their homes, their bodies. And when we are trusted, when we are truly supporting someone to access the life they want to live, it is alchemic.

Sally Jenkinson - support work action shot3

Mega professional home support action shot with beautiful R, who I had the privilege to support a few years ago.

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. And 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.

But 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, 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-PTs, 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 the 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 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.

Sally Jenkinson - support work action shot.jpg

There is a problem with media representation in our sector. People with disabilities are often portrayed in films as being defined by the misery of their disability. 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 a 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 successes (and failures) that we encounter as a team, I know something of those.

The narrative of people with learning (or indeed physical) disabilities must be shifted. I see this happening, slowly. I see artists with LD telling 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 our sector championed as complex and proficient, and our work funded to pioneer new and creative ways of supporting our clients’ needs and 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. Those relationships deserve to be celebrated.