When I first began as a compañer@ at Taller de José as a social work student I found myself wrestling a bit with the concept and practice of accompaniment. My academic coursework had instilled in me the importance of building up a client’s self-efficacy and self-determination. Accompaniment is a unique and important service that Taller de José provides, I found it especially beneficial for clients who experience any form of disability or for those whose first language is not English. Early on however, I noticed that there were many clients I would accompany who seemed to understand English well, were familiar with the systems they needed to navigate and were very competent in advocating for themselves. On these accompaniments I wondered if my presence as a companion and advocate was promoting the clients self-efficacy or having a detrimental effect.
My perspective shifted after an accompaniment with one such client. Isa* was a returning client to Taller de José and I was scheduled to accompany her to two different departments to obtain records. Although she was uncomfortable speaking English I noticed she was able to understand the different instructions and information we received from department staff without needing me to provide interpretation. Both the offices also had Spanish speaking staff who were present to assist us, and some of the request forms we needed to fill out were also available in Spanish. Because Isa had been to both offices for services in the past she had no trouble navigating how to get to them. Throughout this accompaniment I questioned whether my presence with her was beneficial, or was potentially harming her own self-confidence.
After we finished at the second agency Isa thanked me for coming with her. I smiled and said to her I was happy to be with her today. I told her I was impressed with how well she was able to make these requests and work with the staff on her own. She looked at me, and sadly affirmed that yes she knew how to handle these requests, and where to go in the large buildings and how to fill out the paperwork. But she continued to say she was grateful for Taller de José and for accompaniment because when a compañer@ was with her people paid attention to her and they listened to her.
Her disclosure made me reconsider the entire accompaniment in a different light. Though staff at both service providers had been patient and accommodating (finding a Spanish speaking staff member or the necessary forms in Spanish for Isa to complete), at no point had I considered that perhaps the type of treatment and service we received was due in part to the fact that Isa was not making these requests alone. Isa shared that when she tried to access information or make requests by herself she was often ignored, made to wait and some staff members were rude to her.
Isa’s account taught me a valuable lesson about my own privilege as a native English speaker and as a white woman. Although Isa may be more than competent to navigate certain systems, as an immigrant, a Spanish speaker, and woman of color the type of service she receives is likely dramatically different from the level of service I might receive if I navigated the same systems.
I also walked away from the accompaniment realizing my own values and beliefs about self-efficacy and confidence needed some adjusting. Just because Isa was able to navigate the places we visited without my assistance, her desiring the presence, emotional support, and advocacy of a compañer@ did not risk or damage her own self-confidence.
My accompaniment with Isa left a deep impression on my own values and understanding of accompaniment. I also realized how important it is not to make assumptions about clients based on the very limited window I have into their life. Performing an accompaniment does not equip me to make evaluations or judgements about a client’s competency or skills. Accompaniment allows me the privilege to walk alongside another person and share in their experience briefly. I am grateful for such a privilege and opportunity, and I know I will carry the lessons and value of accompaniment with me long after my time as an intern at Taller de José is over.
*Name and details changed to protect client confidentiality