When Ian Laidlaw, a volunteer counselor for refugees, visited an Iraqi client in Leeds, England some years back, he found that the man’s utilities had been cut off, and for five days he had been eating the only thing left in the dark apartment—sugar.
The refugee, who had been on disability following a sustained head injury, had lost his benefits when an Arabic translator gave an incomplete translation of his symptoms to a doctor, costing him his monthly assistance.
“I hadn’t really understood how hard it can be if you are not white and English is not your first language,” said Laidlaw, a native New Zealander. “A fairly simple problem can become huge.”
That experience was the foundation for Laidlaw’s interest in advocacy and human rights social work. He is graduating with a dual concentration M.S.W. in clinical practice and administration.
On the clinical side, Laidlaw has been working as a case manager for adults with mental illness living in group homes. On the administrative side, he has done field placement work for his degree at the United Nations as a volunteer on its NGO Committee on Migration and its Refugee Task Force subcommittee.
The three years he has spent at the Graduate School of Social Service (GSS), he said, have been incredible.
“Every class I have taken has directly responded to my practice in the field,” said Laidlaw, who lived and worked as a counselor in Japan prior to living in England and New York, and who speaks two languages. “And the policy-level experience at the U.N. was amazing. I met so many people from NGOs, all getting together to advocate in social work around the world.”
Last summer, Laidlaw took “Social Work from a Human Rights Perspective,” a GSS course he said completely transformed his approach to practice.
“I used to feel it was my job to assess clients on what they said their needs were, look at how realistic those needs were and see what resources were available,” he said.
Laidlaw said he no longer assesses whether there are resources to meet a client’s needs: instead, he advocates through his agency, the Mental Health Association of Westchester, for the creation of resources.
“I have a group home client who is 82 years old and wants to live on his own, but he keeps getting turned down because of his age. I believe he has a right to a level of housing he feels brings him dignity.
“If someone wants to move toward independent housing or get an education or employment, they have a human right to those things irrespective of their disability,” Laidlaw continued. “If a person in a wheelchair cannot get into a building, the problem isn’t the disability; the problem is that builders build entrances that don’t accommodate all people.”
Someday Laidlaw hopes to return to work in Japan, a nation he said needs immigrants, but which has few structured support programs to help them integrate.
“I love being in an environment where you occupy a place between two cultures and find ways to connect them,” he said.
But for now, Laidlaw will move into a new position at his agency and gain some experience with homeless populations. And learn Spanish.
“There are lots of social problems right here in New York, and lots of different cultures too,” he said.