Wanted: A Very Personal Assistant is another part of BBC Three’s ongoing season of programmes about disability, Defying the Label. In this two-part series, four young people with mobility impairments of differing severity were matched with carers by another disabled man who apparently specialises in matching carers to disabled people. This programme sought to get unemployed and inexperienced young people into caring jobs under the premise that there were all these unemployed young people and all these disabled people who needed carers or assistants. The result, as you might imagine, was that some of the recruits were very poorly matched indeed. (If you’re in the UK, you can watch episode 1 here for the next two weeks, and episode 2 here for the next three.)
The disabled people featured were Jasmine (right), a young woman with Spinal Muscular Atrophy (SMA); Josh, who is a survivor of a brain injury from a cycling accident when he was 12; Rupy, who has cerebral palsy; and finally Michael, who is a quadriplegic following a diving accident while at university. With the exception of Josh, all of them are power-wheelchair users who are fairly successful; Josh, who can walk but has impaired arm function,. is a comedian who does a routine in comedy clubs styling himself “the disabled gangsta” and cracking jokes about disability. Josh is seeking to break away from having his parents do his personal care for him by having an assistant his own age, and believes having his father around when he is socialising is getting in the way of ‘pulling’ girls; the other three have no such concerns, but need the assistant to do cook, clean, wash and dress them and in some cases help them in their work.
The carer matched to Michael thought she could stomach emptying his bladder and bowels manually, but despite having done it to a dummy while in training, could not bring herself to do it for Michael, which resulted in his having to call an agency carer. (This job cannot just be left, as an overfull bowel or bladder can result in a life-threatening complication called autonomic dysreflexia or AD in a person with a high-level spinal cord injury.) The next day, she emptied his bladder, but was so disgusted when she got splashed with his urine (they did not say whether it went on her skin or her clothes — and she was wearing long sleeves) that she resigned. She eventually got a job as a legal secretary, then moved to Bahrain according to the closing captions; this rather suggested that she had no intention of pursuing a career in care (and let’s face it, it’s not well-paid, something this programme didn’t mention at any point).
The best match was that of Jasmine with Emily, and crucially she was the carer who was most like the person she was caring for: same sex, same age, looks so similar they could be cousins at least, and a similar cultural outlook. Emily and Jasmine got on extremely well and Jasmine had no complaints about how Emily washed and dressed her, but both did worry about how her lifestyle and lack of cooking and cleaning skills would impact on Jasmine’s health; Jasmine at one point revealed that a friend of hers had died just weeks ago because of an infection. Fortunately, one day while Jasmine was out doing something or other, Emily cleaned her flat from top to bottom, much to Jasmine’s satisfaction. Emily was the only one to keep the job.
The most interesting story was that of Josh and Francesca, a rather prim, middle-class arts student who described herself as a committed feminist. Josh obviously came from a working-class background, liked his drink and called himself “the mong with the big dong”. He was rather obsessed with ‘getting laid’ and believed that all the other young lads were doing it, and that he wasn’t only because of his disability. Josh wanted Francesca to help him ‘pull’, but she was clearly uncomfortable in his world and was not much help. Then he decides to go on a trip to Amsterdam, which she is thrilled by, only she has ideas of visiting all the museums and art galleries and he wants to go to the Red Light district and, perferably, sleep with a prostitute. (She liked the idea of going to one of Amsterdam’s cafés but neither of them mentioned stronger chemicals than caffeine.) She has strong moral objections to this, regarding it as exploitation, and said she would resign if he actually did this. They agreed to both visit the galleries and tour the red light area, but he would not avail himself of their services.
In the event, he is nonplussed by the art (when Francesca explains that the bright colours in one painting were the result of the painter’s emotions colouring his view of something, Josh replied “maybe he was just colourblind”) although he says he loves Francesca’s company; Francesca is made profoundly uncomfortable by the women on display and men leering at them in the RLD. The pair meet with a dominatrix who explains that many of the girls are in fact in the ‘trade’ by choice, but Francesca feels that she and Josh have ganged up on her. In the end, Francesca insists on going back to the hotel early, which gives Josh a major disappointment as he had agreed to “do Francesca’s shit” and that she would do his. However, the next morning, they are both in a better mood, and Francesca suggests that they build an online dating profile for Josh and he accepts that his manner may be putting women off. In the end, the two stay friends but Francesca ceases to be his carer, as the two don’t want a “job” getting in the way of a beautiful friendship.
The premise of the programme — that the multitudes of unemployed should mean it’s easy to find assistants for all those disabled people who need them — was really not sound at all. While I’m very well aware that there are too many jobs out there where employers demand experience when it is not really needed, providing personal care or assistance to a severely disabled person is not something to do just because you need a job. It did not appear that any of these candidates had ever provided personal care for anyone, and they were not asked whether they had assisted in the care of an elderly relative or a baby. The issue of whether some of the disabled participants wanted a male or female carer was not asked, and they all got women (which nobody objected to here although it’s not always appropriate); a disabled female friend who advertised for a female PA a few months ago told me when I tweeted about this aspect that she had received a number of applications from men. It was possible, she agreed, that some of these had applied just to apply for as many jobs as possible to please their JSA “advisor”. And a good many of my disabled friends who have employed PAs or carers for themselves or relatives (for a variety of impairments from autism to motor neurone disease) have complained of incompetence, lateness, no-shows and in one case, theft.
I was on Job Seekers’ Allowance for two years (2008 to 2010) and although my interest in disability issues only really started halfway through that, the idea of inflicting myself on a quadriplegic when I couldn’t stomach emptying their bowels or changing another adult’s dirty nappies never occurred to me, nor was it suggested. If anyone is suggesting this to an unemployed person with no care experience, they should be stopped immediately. This series demonstrated, if inadvertantly as the issue really wasn’t discussed, that the job of providing intimate day-to-day care for a person with a severe mobility impairment is not a job to be left to anyone who walks in off the street: they need to be professional and not squeamish. If an agency provided too many carers like the one Michael got in this series, they would not last long in the business.
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