The definition of dignity is self-respect and self-worth. The UN Declaration of Human Rights is clear that everyone has the right to dignity.
For many people living on benefits, or in poverty dignity is all that they can lay claim to. But even this, is now being eroded, by welfare and disability reforms. Sanctions, choosing to “heat or eat”, social exclusion, the ‘bedroom tax’ and using food banks have all chipped away at people’s dignity.
All that is left to people now is shame, no self-respect and no future to envisage. This often leads to depression, substance abuse and even suicide. All people want is their dignity restored – is this too much to ask?
The Social Worker’s Point of View
By Professor Fergus McNeill
What inspired you to write this piece?
This piece of writing reflects on ways in which I might have deprived people of their dignity (despite my best intentions) when working as a social worker in the East End of Glasgow in the 1990s. I might be exaggerating a little; I’m not sure I was this bad a social worker, but I think it represents some of what was and is problematic about the ways that professionals and professional services are constructed and about the ways I worked.
It was all about you
Respect for persons
Human dignity and worth
I was taught to understand you
‘Poverty, Discrimination and Disadvantage’
‘People in Adversity’
That bus to Barrowfield
My mind was trained
To empathise and engage
Building trust and rapport
Assessing and planning
In partnership, of course
Task or person-centred?
Cognitive and behavioural?
Individual, group and community?
Clients, targets, systems
And when we finally met
I tried hard to be for you
I applied my mind
Applied my skills
Counseled, motivated, advocated
Striving to change for the better
It, them or you
But not us
And then I drove home
In my bought-and-paid-for car
To my west end flat
My home improvements
My cookbooks and culture
My double income, no children
Mostly strife-less life
The next day I drove east again
Full of ‘preliminary empathy’
Figuring out how exactly to
Social work you better
In partnership, of course
You were allocated to me
Already a ‘case’; an orange folder
Bulging with your annotated problems
Already a case; pre-reported
In a pre-liminary way, of course
All subject to a negotiation
But one in which I wrote your story
Conforming to my structures
A story that rendered you;
Stripping the layers back to a
Hollowed out skeleton
That could fit my small coffin-shaped box of tricks
It was meant to be all about you
But most of you was missing
All the fleshiness
The strong sinews that held you together
And the mind making sense
Of the senselessness
It was meant to be for you
‘Promoting social welfare’
But nothing about you without you was for you.
Except in the moments when I saw you and knew you
And you saw me and knew me
And we made some sense together.
Professor Fergus McNeill
The Real Effects of being Sanctioned
Dignity, Singing, and the DWP
I always get a crumbling feeling when I go into the Job Centre. It feels as if someone is sitting in there waiting for me to come in and make a mistake. Waiting to tell me I haven’t been trying hard enough. They don’t treat me like William, like a person, they treat me like a number. I can feel my dignity crumbling away.
When you get there, go in the door, you are met by two security guards. Right away I feel like a piece of trash, like I’ve done something wrong before I even go in. There’s no privacy in the Job Centre either. I can hear other people’s business and they can hear mine.
Some advisors are good, but others don’t seem to listen and are at you all the time. Even though I’ve got my book filled in to show how I’ve been looking for work, they still look at me and say it’s not enough. Do they know how hard I worked to fill that in? I start to feel low, worthless, anxious, emotional and angry. I try and bite my lip and not answer back, but there’s only so much you can take. You know that if you answer back though they’ll accuse you of threatening behaviour and you will either get your money cut, or be escorted out by the police.
There have been some good days in the Job Centre, but they are rare. I feel like they don’t believe in me, like I am just another number on a list.
It would be better if staff didn’t judge you – it’s like they’re judging a book by its cover when they look at me. It would be better if they didn’t jump to conclusions and think I don’t want to work. It would be better if they understood what it is like to live in poverty and with the pressure from the Job Centre. I want to work, but at the Job Centre I’m not encouraged in my job seeking. Instead they try to force me into short term, part time jobs just so they can reach their targets for getting people into work.
A couple of years ago I started going to the Lodging House Mission. It’s a Day Centre for people with homelessness needs. I went there for the cheap food at first, but ended up getting involved in a choir they ran. It was good, and I grew to love singing.
Scottish Opera ran a project with the Lodging House Mission and I got my first lead role in their production – ‘Who Killed John King?’ We ended up performing it at the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden. Who would ever have thought that I would have been performing with the Scottish Opera at the Royal Opera House?
There were other groups performing from all over the world, all of us experiencing homelessness. We got a standing ovation at the end of our piece. I’ll never forget that. It was a beautiful experience. Our play was about two families and a gangland war. I felt like I was going to be sick with nerves – heavy nervous before I went on – but I done it, and it was good. I still can’t believe I was there. People dream about that sort of thing.
That gave me the confidence to get involved with the Citizens Theatre and to go to college. It’s amazing and has given me something I love doing. Singing is a big part of my life now. I used to be a timid wee person with a lot of hurt and problems through homelessness and poverty. The choir gave me a group of people who believed in me, even when I didn’t believe in myself, and encouraged me to believe in them. I felt full of dignity working with them. Working together.
What is dignity? It’s being allowed to be who you are. It’s being a person, not a number. It’s being supported, listened to, believed in. It’s doing things together with people – not doing things for them, or forcing them to do something they don’t want to on their own.
Last year was a very difficult year for me, and it feels good to be standing here talking to you at the beginning of this one. The Poverty Truth Commission has taught me that we might all be in poverty, but we’re still strong, and we’re still together. It’s been a place for me to blossom. I’ve got to work with people I never even thought I would meet. And together we can say,
Nothing about us, Without us, Is for Us.