Kathy Stiell

Recipient: March 2016

It is apparent to Kathy Stiell that a focus and expertise in human relationships has been one of social work's strongest assets and may be even more so in the future: "This is a very exciting and proud time in history to be a social worker." Kathy Stiell, MSW, RSW, is the co-founder of the Aphasia Centre of Ottawa and Director of Family Support. She is being recognized by OASW as an Inspirational Leader during Social Work Week, which is celebrated March 7-13, 2016, under the theme: "Social Workers Help Turn Issues Into Answers"

Kathy noted that recent scientific research, especially in the neurosciences, provides validation for social work's longstanding "person in the environment" and relationship-oriented interventions: "A century ago, social work pioneers embedded into our Code of Ethics values that are now known to play a critical role in health and emotional well-being. I wonder how social worker Mary Richmond, writing in 1917, knew that 'the degree of emotional bonding between family members was critical to their ability to survive and flourish'. I can only conclude that our profession was ahead of its time and that it has so much to offer in the future. The commitment and expertise in recognizing the systemic impact of strengthening families is part of our legacy. Interestingly, now there are hundreds of research studies supporting Attachment Theory, which shows the importance of empathetic attunement and close relationships in coping with adversity such as trauma and illness." 

This year's Social Work Week theme has given Kathy the opportunity to reflect on her own career and how she has tried to make a difference: "As social workers we are trained to use our professional lens to identify disadvantaged populations that others may not see. We seek to understand and facilitate action toward social justice, accessibility and inclusion. In my career, I have found opportunities to help give voice and find answers." She graduated with her BSW from Western in 1975 and MSW from McGill in 1980. Early in her career at the Niagara Peninsula Rehabilitation Centre she was introduced to a marginalized population experiencing chronic pain, the reality of which was always being questioned. Her MSW placement was at The Montreal General Pain Clinic where she learned about the 'Politics of Pain' and her research study focused on the relationship between chronic pain and distress in close relationships. 

From the time she started working at the Ottawa Civic Hospital, she demonstrated innovative and tireless skills in establishing resources for people with stroke and brain-injury related disabilities. During this time, she became aware of individuals marginalized due to aphasia: "Similar to chronic pain, I saw aphasia as a disability that was not easily understood. Aphasia is the loss of language usually from a stroke or other neurological conditions and is often mistaken for memory loss. Speaking, reading, and writing may all be affected to various degrees. Language is our main vehicle for social interaction. Imagine knowing what you want to say but not being able to say it. Imagine in the context of your family, knowing your children but not being able to say their names or calling them by the wrong name. Imagine your teenager not bringing home invitations to parent-teacher interviews because they are embarrassed by your difficulty speaking. Aphasia hides competence, leads to exclusion from normal conversation, increases vulnerability to abuse and most tragically poses the risk of disconnection within family relationships." 

Kathy explained that the 'issue' of living with aphasia was turned into an 'answer' by creating a safe place -- The Aphasia Centre of Ottawa, a not-for-profit community-based centre that provides long-term support to families once rehabilitation programs have ended. She noted that the first 20 years were not easy as she and speech-language therapist Gillian Gailey wrote over 60 grant applications to keep afloat. Over the years their diligence and advocacy have allowed the Aphasia Centre to grow into a centre offering social work services, communication therapy, physiotherapy, cognitive rehabilitation, and day programs allowing for social inclusion: "We both became passionate about providing a safe place for families to have: equal and universal access to ongoing support; self-determination actualized in self-referral and no discharge policies; a sliding scale fee structure; initial home visits and programs that fit clients' needs rather than clients fitting into programs. We made 'talk therapy' accessible by developing a co-therapy model with the speech-language therapist and social worker working together in sessions, a model described inThe Clinical Handbook of Emotionally Focused Therapy." 

As a highly skilled marriage and family therapist, Kathy has presented at national and international conferences about Emotion Focused Therapy interventions, taught Family Therapy at Carleton University, and actively participated as a mentor for many MSW students and new graduates over the years. She noted: "Teaching at Carleton University School of Social Work for five years gave me the opportunity to encourage students to develop relationship expertise and competence in family interventions and recognize this as one of our greatest assets." 

Kathy was one of the prime movers in establishing Heartwood House, a building housing non-profit, community organizations in Ottawa. The belief was that community organizations would be "better together" supporting each other, their clients and the broader community by sharing space, resources, costs, services and ideas. Sixteen years later, Heartwood House is home to 21 non-profit co-operative community organizations. 

Kathy indicated that OASW has played an important role in her career: "After graduating with my MSW and moving to Ottawa, I was able to connect with the social work community through involvement with the Eastern Branch. Also, for many years I was the only social worker at the Aphasia Centre and involvement in the Eastern Branch helped me stay connected with other social workers in the community, many of whom I consider to be mentors." 

She added: "It is a great honour to be selected for OASW's Inspirational Leadership Award 2016 and I want to express appreciation to OASW and to all my colleagues who have supported me over the years. Thanks also to my loving and supportive family." 

Kathy Stiell is an inspirational leader in the social work community - collaborative, innovative, tireless. During Social Work Week, March 7-13, 2016, and throughout the year, take the time to acknowledge social workers who make a difference.