Social workers – Supporting people with vision loss

World Social Work Day is the opportunity to highlight all that our social workers do supporting people with vision loss.

We provide Social Work services to both children and adults through our social workers Marija Clarke and Michelle Shinnick. We also currently have two student social workers Emalee Neacy and Beau Moulton. Both are studying at Curtin University and will be with us for the next four months.

To mark World Social Work Day (opens in new link) on the 16 March we’ve been finding out what makes them tick, why they both love the social work profession, and specifically working with people with vision loss.

Social workers Marija and Michelle sit around a wooden table in a cafe with student social workers Emalee and Beau
VisAbility is pleased to welcome two student social workers Beau and Emalee

What prompted you to become a social worker?

Marija: My parents are migrants and don’t have a family support network in Australia. I had the opportunity to advocate and translate for them from an early age which I enjoyed. As someone with vision impairment, I myself have received support from VisAbility.

I experienced discrimination as a young person while I was on public transport. A conductor challenged me because I had a blind person’s travel pass. They thought I wasn’t entitled to it because I still had some vision, but I knew the name of the concession was the problem.

Campaigning and collaboration meant it’s now called the ‘Travel Pass’ (person with vision impairment). I love such systematic change resulting from individual experience to help minimise suffering. This is very much about what social work is about. I think this was one of many things that prompted me down the path to become a social worker, and I’ve been with VisAbility now for 23 years and very much love what we do here.

Michelle: I’ve only been here for eight years as opposed to Marija’s 20 plus years. I gained my Bachelor of Social Work at the beginning of last year, so this is my second year as a social worker. My background is early childhood education and I previously worked in Children and Youth Services (CAYS) in an early intervention role which included facilitating VisAbility’s playgroup. If I’m being honest, I believe I was born to be a social worker because I enjoy advocating for others, offering emotional support and empowering people. We see human resilience every day and it’s our support that helps individuals to be stronger.

Why did you choose to study social work?

Emalee (student): My father died from cancer when I was young and I really valued those who helped him while he was ill. I come from a close-knit family and there was support from psychologists and social workers to help my mother and my brothers. It was the little things that we valued such as the social worker organising a transport card. Because I’ve experienced grief and trauma at a young age, it’s shaped who I’ve become.

As a young child I also spent time in Zambia in Lumwna because my father worked for a copper mine. I saw real poverty every day , people lived in mud huts with no social support from government bodies. It shaped me to become more empathetic.

Initially, I started studying a Bachelor of Science in Psychology, but quickly changed across to a Degree in Social Work.

Beau and Emalee sit around a wooden table in outdoor area of cafe
The two student social workers will be with VisAbility for four months

Beau (student): My first degree was a BSc in Political Science and International Relations. I had a lightbulb moment last year. I’d secured a job in aviation, and the coronavirus pandemic took hold. I’d been a volunteer firefighter in the Perth Hills and helped people who were facing challenging circumstances. All that prompted me to return to study and so now I’m doing a Master of Social Work.

What’s it like being a social worker dealing with people with vision loss?

Marija: I hope I’m making a difference. My lived experience of vision impairment and longevity with VisAbility means that I develop real insight with clients. It’s a special moment to get to walk alongside a client at times of great emotion or personal change for them, such as loss of vision. It takes much trust. Almost six months ago, VisAbility launched a partnership with Lions Eye Institute (window opens in new link) to enable closer links between the two organisations to deliver support and connect patients to services.

It’s especially meaningful for people with a new diagnosis who are experiencing significant reduction in their vision. Losing your sight can be emotionally overwhelming. Ophthalmologists provide essential medical diagnosis and treatment and social workers at VisAbility are well placed to support the emotional journey and link to support services. It’s a privilege to be part of that journey.

Michelle: I totally agree. There can be a lot of emotional distress when someone receives an initial diagnosis of vision loss. Social workers offer hope and can inspire people and be that constant in peoples’ lives. It’s a meaningful job with purpose.

Marija and Michelle stand in outdoor area in front of railings with park view behind them
Between them Marija and Michelle have been with VisAbility for a total of 33 years

Emalee (student): As a student I’m enjoying shadowing Marija. Beau and I are running an information stand at the Lions Eye Institute every Friday and I’m looking forward to being able to advise others of the work that we do.

Beau (student): There aren’t too many male social workers, and I feel privileged to be one of them. Everyone at VisAbility has been so welcoming. It’s definitely encouraging me to work in a not-for-profit once I graduate.

Tell us something many people won’t know about you?

Marija: Before having my own children, skydiving was on my bucket list. I like adventure. Other highlights of mine include abseiling into the amazing Waitomo glow-worm caves in New Zealand, and trekking through beautiful Tamin Nigara National Park in Malaysia. I’m also a fan of super dark chocolate.

Michelle: I write poetry, and I’ve always had a long held desire to be a writer. I once received a special mention at a poetry book launch from the award winning writer Elizabeth Jolley. Unbeknown to me, she selected one of my poems from this poetry book to read at the launch. It was a moment I’ll never forget. One day I might get around to writing creative material.

Emalee (student): Living in Zambia really shaped my perspective on life. I’d love to work in under developed countries as there’s so little support in these areas.

Beau (student): I’ve visited a lot of the world. I won a scholarship to study modern Chinese literature in Beijing in China. Now I ‘m aware Michelle shares my love of words, I’m thinking perhaps we could write an historic novel between us.

If you have any queries about Social Work services please contact us directly.