“I believe the Deaf person is an expert in their own needs.” Meet Colm McGerigal, nominated for Adult Social Worker of the Year

Posted on February 7, 2014

Tell us about yourself, how did you become a social worker?

I am currently working as a social worker for profound Deaf sign language users, in the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, Social Services, where I’ve worked since 2007.

I initially trained as a Rehabilitation Officer for Vision Impairment, working with people who are blind or partially sighted. I am originally from Derry, in Northern Ireland, and I did my student placement in the Sensory Team in Derry.

I then moved to London in 1999, and worked in Richmond Sensory Team. Here I worked as a Rehabilitation Officer for Vision Impairment, and I had an opportunity to work with Deafblind and Deaf people.

It was whilst I was working in Richmond, they offered me secondment opportunity to train as a social worker. I graduated from Kingston University in 2006 with a degree BA Care Management and Diploma in Social work.

Colm SW awards 2013When did you first start working with deaf people?

I first started working with Deaf people when I was on my rehabilitation officer student placement – some of the service users allocated to me were Deafblind, and I had the opportunity to learn how to communicate with them.

I was then fortunate enough to work for the RNID in Derry, in their residential home for Deaf and Deafblind people, from 1997-1999. I have a Deaf friend living back in Ireland, that I went to college with, and I picked up some signs from them.

What have your experiences been like?

I enjoy my work supporting Deaf people and I have many varied experiences as a social worker for Deaf people. I think Deaf people are one of the most marginalised people in our society.

The main need is communication support. I run a Deaf drop-in service every Wednesday. This is usually the point of referral and assessment of need for Deaf people, who attend the drop-in. Deaf people regularly visit me with correspondence they need assistance with, and I translate this into sign language to enable that Deaf person to understand it and for them to decide on a decision or reply appropriately.

I believe the Deaf person is an ‘expert’ in their own needs, due to their experiences and challenges they have had in their daily life. My service users would often request my assistance to contact various other services, to request for a sign language interpreter for example.

Deaf people can be vulnerable due to the huge communication breakdown they experience, so I often inform others about Deaf awareness. Recently I contacted a GP, requesting they provide an interpreter, and I was informed by the GP that they didn’t know that the service user used sign language to communicate.

I have had many experiences of challenging other service providers, informing them of the specific needs of profoundly Deaf sign language users and informing them of good practice, such as providing appropriate communication support.

Kensington Town Hall has a BSL sign video link, and I often have to remind other Council staff to use that facility and not use pen and paper, especially when a Deaf resident visits the Town Hall and needs to meet with Housing Needs Dept.

Using the Sign Video Link enables the Deaf resident to communicate in their preferred language and receive an equal service. Other duties for me as social worker for Deaf may include conducting assessments for environmental hearing equipment, such as vibrating smoke/fire alarms; assessing risk and safeguarding my service users from harm.

What level of BSL have you reached?

I have recently completed BSL level 6. And in 2009, I did my BSL level 3. Whilst working in Kensington and Chelsea, I have been fortunate that they have supported me to study BSL at such a high level. I get excellent feedback from my service users, because I can communicate with them fluently. I did my BSL level one in 2000 and the following year, I did my BSL level 2.

Tell us about your recent award nomination?

I was nominated for the Social Worker of the Year Award 2013 (England) by my service users; and a family of a service user also nominated me; and this was endorsed by my manager.

I am delighted to have come 4th in my category, Adult Social Worker of the Year. 300 social workers from all over England and representatives of the profession were present during the awards ceremony which was held in November at the Lancaster London hotel, in London.

The winners and the finalists received national recognition for their support of vulnerable children and adults For me to have come 4th in the category ‘Adults Social Worker of the Year,’ has certainly raised the profile of the role of social workers for Deaf people.

What does the future hold for you?

Unfortunately, nationally there are a shortage of social workers for Deaf people, especially social workers that can communicate effectively in sign language at a higher level, who can support Deaf people without needing interpreters.

My future as a social worker for Deaf people shall always be to advocate on my service users’ behalf, challenging the right of any Deaf person to equal access to services, to ensure that appropriate adjustments are made to enable that person has equal access to others.

I feel Deaf people are marginalised and face communication barriers daily. And lack of Deaf awareness from others can hamper future development in Deaf services. By empowering Deaf people, I will continue to engage with the Deaf residents in Kensington and promote their right to be consulted, and value their contribution in service development, to improve the future of all Deaf people.

What aims do you have?

I am fortunate to work for a local authority that supports me in my role as social worker for Deaf people. Kensington and Chelsea borough has always provided an excellent service for its Deaf residents. I am also lucky to have a brilliant manager that understands the specific communication needs that Deaf people have.

My aim is to do my utmost to prevent hardship to any Deaf service user – both adults and children – and promote their independence – always with personalisation at the forefront of my practice including antidiscriminatory practice.

Research informs us that being Deaf carries a significantly increased risk of mental health difficulties, greater vulnerability to abuse and significantly poorer educational outcomes. It is for this reason that Deaf people need the support of a social worker who can communicate and understand them and assist them in times of difficulty.

Testimonials from Colm’s service users and their relatives:

“Colm helped me with my mounting debts by referring me to the CAB, and talked to the housing department to stop me getting evicted, I did not understand the letters they were sending me, and I could not telephone them myself. Colm was really kind and supportive, and I could be homeless without his help”

“Colm helped me get my children into nursery placement before they started school, so they could learn to integrate with hearing children, I was struggling to do this myself as the pre-school service did not understand the needs of my children having Deaf parents, and said we were not eligible as we both were at home, but he explained to them why the children need to be around hearing children to help them talk and hear other children talking. Thanks you Colm”

“I recently had to have chemotherapy and then a bone morrow transplant and Colm helped me arrange interpreters which the hospital were supposed to provide, but at first they wouldn’t, he explained it was my right to have procedures explained to me in sign language, and they agreed. I didn’t understand the details about the transplant and he made sure I understood what would be happening, and when one interpreter was sick he came himself to help me. I was scared and worried as I could not understand what the nurse and doctors wanted me to do, and he helped me so much. I was given lots of medication, and because I use sign language, I didn’t understand the writing on the bottles. Colm arranged with the community nurse to put my medication in a ‘pill organiser box.’ This made it easier for me because I had got all my medication all mixed up and forgot to take the anti rejection tablets…..I am lucky to have Colm to help me.

“I recently had a bad fall and broke my hip. I was admitted to hospital for a hip replacement. Colm is my social worker and he visited my home before I was discharged from hospital and measured various utilities in my home such as I needed a raised toilet and equipment to access my bath and grab rails so I can get in and out of bed easily….he arranged for me to get equipment installed in my flat. Colm did joint working with the physiotherapist and the Occupational Therapist and because he can sign, he acted as communication support, to enable me to understand what the physiotherapist and the OT were saying. This helped me have a speedy recovery.’

“Since Colm became the social worker responsible for dealing with my father-in-law, he has transformed our sense of security and peace of mind. My father in-law is 91 profoundly Deaf and uses mostly Irish Sign Language with some British Sign Language….Colm keeps in regular touch with us to make sure that everything is ok, but also his unique combination of skills in both Irish Sign Language and British Sign language mean that at last we are confident my father in-law is being seen by someone who can really communicate with him, understands his needs, do something about it, and keep us informed that all is well…..we cannot praise him too highly for the contribution he has made to the welfare and peace of mind of an old man who had been rather isolated.”

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