Bringing family experiences to practice

Published: September 19, 2022

For National Social Workers’ Day we catch up with disability advocate, PhD candidate, and mother of four, Racheal Priestley as she talks about bringing her experience of raising three autistic children to her social work practice.

Racheal Masters
Racheal graduated from her Masters with a First Class Honours endorsement earlier this year. The pounamu she wears was carved by her father.

Racheal Priestley (Ngāpuhi) has always had a strong connection to Ōtautahi, and she moved to the city with her family just six weeks before the Christchurch earthquakes. 

When she discovered the house they were living in was just a few doors down from where her grandmother was born, it all started to make sense.

"My grandfather was one of 24 siblings, and 12 of them moved to Christchurch from the far north. He met my grandmother when he was visiting his siblings, then they moved back to Whakapara Marae and got married,” says Racheal. 

Working as a Regional Disability Advisor throughout the Waitaha rohe, Racheal and her husband are able to keep their family connections strong as they raise their 4 tamariki, including 3 autistic children, in Christchurch.

Sharing a basket of knowledge

As a registered social worker, Racheal supports kaimahi from Oamaru right up to Nelson with training and advice on supporting disabled children and whānau.

It’s such a cool job. I’m so grateful for those opportunities to help people understand more about disability, and to see them passionate about making it better for tamariki or whānau impacted by disabilities.”

Racheal Priestley

“I also run workshops on disability training. When you do your social work or even education degree, you don’t talk about disability as an area of practice, so lots of social workers don’t have that knowledge.

“It’s one of those things where you don’t know what you don’t know – but when you do, you can really make a positive difference for a family.”

Racheal walking
Racheal and her husband are raising their four tamariki, including three autistic children, in Christchurch.

Bringing personal experience to the role

In an interview with documentary producer Attitude, Racheal talks about deciding to become a social worker as a way of advocating for her children. 

“I was getting turned away all the time when I tried to advocate for what I thought they needed. So I thought, right, I need a bigger piece of paper than “mum.” I’d always had an interest in social work, so I did my social work qualification through Massey University by distance,” says Racheal. 

Since then, Racheal has completed her Master’s thesis on ‘The impact of individualised funding on the wellbeing of mothers raising autistic children’, which will soon be published in the Aotearoa New Zealand Social Work Journal.

Having received a First Class Honours endorsement, Racheal will soon begin studying towards her PhD and has just had her research topic approved. 

Racheal wears many hats when working with whānau, and says it’s complemented by her experiences as a mother, researcher, social worker and community member. 

“I’m a social worker, but I’m also a family member with that lived experience. That can make a difference to know that you’re talking with someone who absolutely understands it, when you already have a sense of trust,” says Racheal. 

“I work in lots of volunteer roles, including the Enabling Good Lives leadership group. I'm also a student, so I get to be that naïve enquirer – and I’m not averse to challenging people on biased thinking.” 

Changing the system

As Oranga Tamariki begins working with disability communities and the wider sector to create a Disability Strategy, Racheal says listening to people with lived experience is more important than ever. 

“We need a whole system change – it's not just an Oranga Tamariki problem. Since I started working with Oranga Tamariki last year, there has been a noticeable shift. Maybe I’m more sensitive to it than before, but there seems to be more questions being asked about how we’re meeting the needs of disabled tamariki,” says Racheal. 

“When you think about other social movements, there are often lots of people from a community who articulate their own story and represent it themselves. In the disability community, that is a little harder and the stories get dismissed more often. 

“People are starting to take notice though, and we are getting more people with lived experience being involved in panels and so on. ‘Nothing about us without us’ - I think that’s a really good position.” 

Find out more about creating the Disability Strategy 

Social workers supporting disabled people

Part of creating the Disability Strategy is bringing together feedback from disabled people published in research, reports and reviews about care over the last 10 years. 

A key theme is that the judgement and assumptions of others, including professionals, continues to have a significant impact on the wellbeing of disabled people.

I love my role at Oranga Tamariki and am grateful to be able to do this work to try and improve the outcomes of disabled tamariki and caregivers.”

Racheal Priestley
Harry rushing
Racheal says this whānau photo on Sumner Beach, featuring her son Harry rushing ahead, captures the family perfectly.

“An important message to remember when working with a whānau with disability is that these are people who are emotionally and physically drained. They are carrying an awful lot. 

“The caregivers desperately want to be able to do a good job, and we can support them to do that with empathy and understanding.  

“I’d encourage any social workers to find out who their Regional Disability Advisor is, because there are people like me all through the country who want to help.”