Tuesday, September 12, 2017

A social worker who's lived the other side of rehab

'They tell me that it's different working with me'

By Louise Kinross

Gabriella Carafa is a social worker whose connection to Holland Bloorview goes back to her childhood, when she visited our neuromuscular clinic. Eleven years ago, Gabriella participated in Holland Bloorview’s The Independence Program, living for three weeks in a university residence to learn a variety of life skills. Since then, she’s worked as a youth facilitator at The Independence Program and at our Youth Weekend Retreat.

Three years ago she came on board as a social worker in our child development program, working with work with youth with cerebral palsy, spina bifida, spinal-cord injury, craniofacial differences and complex medical needs. She also provides social work support to young adults in The Independence Program.

BLOOM: What drew you into this field?

Gabriella Carafa: I wanted to be a social worker because I’ve always been interested in people’s emotions and supporting them to cope with their life experiences. I thought I could contribute greatly to working in children’s rehab because of my rich lived experience, in combination with my clinical skills.

My clients say it best when they tell me that I understand things and they don’t feel like they need to explain as much to me. They don’t have to explain about the frustrations around accessibility, or how hard it is to go out with your friends, because I understand. They tell me that it’s different working with me.

BLOOM: What are some of the common issues they bring to you?

Gabriella Carafa: The common issues are around acceptance of disability and self-esteem. Anxiety is a huge one and depressive symptoms, even if they don’t have a formal diagnosis. As they’re getting older, they recognize more things that they can’t participate in in the same way as their peers.

BLOOM: Do they also recognize the stigma of disability more?

Gabriella Carafa: Yes. If it’s not overt, it may be that they’re not invited to parties, because people assume they can’t go up the stairs, for example.

It’s not one of these things, but a combination of them: dealing with anxiety and depression and feeling like they don’t fit in or it’s hard to fit in.

BLOOM: What is the greatest challenge of your job?

Gabriella Carafa:
My greatest challenge is supporting youth with complex medical and cognitive disabilities in their transition to adult services. In the adult realm, there are long wait lists for services and funding. For families who maybe had funding in the children’s system for respite—that ends at age 18.

Sometimes I feel helpless. I try to make families aware of all of the funding changes as soon as possible, and look at ways they can manage by increasing their support network and connecting with other families to advocate for system change.

BLOOM: What do you love about your job?

Gabriella Carafa:
So many things. I think social work is a privileged profession. I’m a big believer in being vulnerable and being real, and in social work most of the time you see people at their most vulnerable, when they’re going through a tough time. I get to witness the strength of clients and families.

I ask those questions that other professions may not be asking, like ‘How are you coping?’ or “What has the impact of the diagnosis been on you and your family?”

You’re normalizing feelings they may not want to admit to other people.

Parents may be ashamed that they’re not coping well, and you create that space where they can just be honest without guilt or fear of judgment.

BLOOM: How do you cope with some of the emotions that come with your work?

Gabriella Carafa: I am working on not taking the work home. That doesn’t mean I don’t care. Making sure you have activities you do outside work that you enjoy is important. I also have a lot of social worker friends—some here and others not—and we can lean on each other for support.

What’s hard is when families think I should do more to change all the systems in adult services. When families want me to do more than I can, it’s hard on me.

I feel proud that I do this work and I feel I make a difference by creating a safe space and providing families with the information they need. They feel they have someone in their corner.

BLOOM: I know you also supervise social work students.

Gabriella Carafa:
I hope social workers coming into the field have a better understanding of disability, and I work hard to provide that both as a social worker and as a person with a disability. I can educate future social workers around disability and the stigma that comes with it. I support them to develop an anti-ableist practice.

BLOOM: You said your understanding of independence has changed since you went to The Independence Program as a client.

Gabriella Carafa:
I recognize that our traditional ideas about independence aren’t possible for every client, so why are we thinking about independence this way? With medical advances, a lot of youth with complex needs are living longer.

Until I began working as a social worker here, I didn’t have a thorough understanding of the wide variety of disabilities our clients have. Most of the youth I work with have complex needs. Many won’t go to post-secondary education, move out on their own, get a job, or volunteer, and that’s okay.

Even the people who are going to The Independence Program have changed. We have more people with cognitive, rather than just physical, needs. These are individuals who may never live independently in the traditional sense. But that doesn’t mean they can’t build skills and recognize when they need support.

BLOOM: I was speaking with a colleague whose family is from Ethiopia. She said our obsession with ‘independence’ as the end goal of life is hard for them to understand.

Gabriella Carafa:
Western ideas of independence are not reflected in many of the cultures we serve here. And whether or not you have a disability, people are living with their parents, spouses, children and grandparents, and the families are interwoven and interdependent. Why is that a bad thing?

On the other hand, we do have situations where the youth wants to be independent, but culturally the family doesn’t believe in that. They don’t want their child to move out.

Some parents experience grief when they realize traditional independence may not be possible for their child. However, that doesn’t mean there aren’t other possibilities for having a great life as an adult. That’s why we need to continue having transparent conversations with our clients and families that explore what is possible.

BLOOM: If you could change one thing in the health system, what would it be?

Gabriella Carafa: Adult services as a whole. I think we do a really good job in the children’s system, and adult services need to reflect that. I wish the adult systems were better connected and that adults with disabilities had more funding available to them. And I wish the systems reflected people with diverse identities and needs. Ha—that’s a lot!

BLOOM: What have you learned from families?

Gabriella Carafa:
That they’re resilient. That’s what I’ve learned.