Allan Mayer’s Weblog

Posts Tagged ‘hospital

I have just had the great fortune of attending the Social History of Learning Disability Conference at the Open University in Milton Keynes.

I delivered a paper about resettling people from longstay ‘Mental Handicap’ hospitals in the 1980s, illustrated with passages from my book, ‘Tasting the Wind.’

 I came away feeling that I was seeing things in a different way (surely the mark of a good conference) and wanting to share what for me were the highlights.

 Where do I start? People spoke from such varied angles: some about their work with people with learning disabilities over the decades, some about their first hand experience of receiving services either in the large institutions or in smaller settings.

 Daniel Doherty had lived at Calderstones from the age of 6 to 16. He is still only 42. After I read a passage from ‘Tasting the Wind’ about a Hospital ‘Punishment room’ he told me how he had been locked in one of them on several occasions and was subjected to electro-convulsive treatment.

 Ebbw Hreinsdottir came from Iceland and spoke to us through an interpreter. She had rebelled against the staff, rejecting their assessment of her as ‘retarded’ and was classed as challenging because of that. Ebbw now lives with her husband.

 Rob Henstock told us how he has worked with people with learning disabilities since 1973. He recounted how in his first job the staff encouraged him to beat up a random patient to show the others that he was not to be messed with. He refused, and as a result was locked into a time-out room and given an injection.

Simon Jarrett felt that the institutions had destroyed existing networks of support and demonstrated this from Old Bailey court records from the eighteenth to twentieth centuries. A man with a learning disability who had been charged with involvement in a riot in the 1700s was defended by a network of friends- all of whom had a different alibi for him. What is more, that man had a job- way before our concepts of supported employment. As time went on, the views of judges toward people with learning disabilities in the dock hardened until, in the 1840’s they disappear from court records. That was about the time that the institutions opened.

Perhaps the highlight of the whole conference for me was when Daniel gave his presentation and Mabel Cooper, who had lived in an institution at the other end of the country asked if men and women were kept apart at Calderstones. Suddenly there was an exchange between them which at one time could never have happened. ‘We used to put letters through the fence,’ said Mabel. ‘Want to know what we did?’ asked Daniel, a twinkle in his eye. ‘We went to the laundry room, and if staff came along someone would sing to warn us.’

 These were not prisons, but hospitals.

 One theme of the conference was that the hospitals had both good and bad staff, and that demotivation during the closure programme was understandable. But this did not take away from the confirmation of what we all knew- that many ‘patients’ were dehumanised and brutalised by the experience.

 So what do we learn from this? Surely the purpose of such histories is to preserve the legacy of a large number of people whose voices are at risk of never being heard. But what came over strongly was the realisation that an institution is more a state of mind than a building. Some people recounted happy days and good memories of staff during those days. Living in a smaller, community based setting does not guarantee non-institutional living.

We must learn from history, and do all that we can to prevent the worst institutional practices from returning.  That is a great challenge in these days of having to do more with less.

The one thing that should give us cause for optimism is that these days there are strong advocacy groups, and at conferences such as the Social History of Learning Disabilities conference ‘staff’ stand alongside ‘service users’ as presenters, which must mean a more balanced overall view and a shift in power. Let’s hope that this way we can prevent the recurrence of the nightmares of the past.

You can visit the Social History of Learning Disability website at

Recordings of all of this year’s presentations will appear there shortly.


(This one is a RANT- and if I say anything that is uncharacteristic it is because I am angry and may feel differently tomorrow… but I doubt it.)

The term ‘Moron’ has long since lost its ‘scientific’ meaning as the title of a specific condition and now is used as an alternative word for ‘Idiot.’

After something I witnessed this week, I want to rehabilitate the medical connection of the word ‘moron.’

Now as morons are perceived to be of low intelligence, it makes sense that they would tend to have more accidents, so statistically will end up in A&E or ER more frequently than the rest of us. For instance, a moron may need medical assistance for a lung condition after burning his house down. Any of us could find ourselves in that position. Only in the moron’s case it has probably happened because when it started raining he (or she, because moronism is not gender specific) thought it a good idea to move his barbecue inside the house. That sort of thing.

The condition only becomes dangerous when the moron is taken to A&E. And he will be taken, even if he can get there under his own steam. He will be taken, because somewhere in the haze which is his brain he has grasped the idea that the big van with a flashing blue light is a free taxi.

And another thing that the normally docile moron is good at grasping is what things are his ‘rights.’ He will fight ferociously to defend the rights that a modern democracy has given him, without once feeling the need to give anything back in return.


On Tuesday night my wife suffered from a severe asthma attack. Her peak flow meter (a tube which measures how well you are breathing) usually registers 250 but had plummeted to 50. Similar things have happened before, and a visit to an emergency doctor’s clinic has been enough. This time, I phoned the clinic and after getting my wife to speak down the phone and listening to her breathe they advised me not to panic but to get an overnight bag together and call for an ambulance immediately.

In retrospect, there is a very funny side to a man having to get things together for his wife for a night. Somewhere in the urgency of it all I was there trying to choose a matching outfit and appropriate underwear. I was alao having to compute what the best alternative would be for our foster son, which I decided was to reassure him that she would be OK but soon and ambulance would arrive so would he get his shoes on and go over to the neighbours.

A paramedic in a car arrived first, shortly followed by the ambulance. I have to say that from the paramedics, to the receptionist, the nurses, the doctors and the porters, the service was absolutely first class, both in terms of competence and in terms of their professional and reassuring approach.

But then along came the morons…

My wife was admitted and put on a nebuliser very quickly, but due to about three morons kicking off  it was an hour before a doctor got to see her.

One moron had been wheeled by two porters to x-ray, wheeled back to A&E, then got up and walked to the front door to chat on his mobile.

When this waste of resources was pointed out to him he verbally abused the nurse and demanded to see a manager. The nurse pointed out that they were understaffed, and that the manager would gladly see him when she had finished her tour of thirteen wards, but the implications of this were totally lost on the moron.

His demands to see a manager and rant about his rights seemed to go on forever, and I’m there watching the fluctuations in the monitor that is attached to my wife as his manner became increasingly aggressive.

Then another moron interrupted the staff to ask if his wife could leave the building. They said no, because she had a head injury, and that led to a confrontation because she just had to have a cigarette…

Something else happened- we couldn’t see what it was from the cubicle- but the next thing was the police turning up.

Let’s just take a reality check here. This is a place where people go to be healed. It is staffed by intelligent, hard working people, who are there to save lives.

It seemed that the majority of their time was spent pacifying morons.

As far as I was aware, only one of them was drunk- the one who gave the staff a load of abuse when advised that he should not be walking on a  leg which was so badly injured. The drunks usually appear at the weekend. This was Tuesday night and these were morons. And they knew their rights.

I don’t know what the answer, but there is something so wrong about these hardworking heroes having to cope with this additional stress. And there is something wrong about genuine patients (one of the morons had a season ticket at the A&E) having to wait for treatment.

When it came it was superb, and my wife is fine now.

But tonight those staff will probably be facing the same situation all over again. And if you are thinking of scenarios from ‘Casualty’ or ‘ER’ you are in the wrong area. The scene was more like something from ‘M*A*S*H,’ as a group of staff did their job with humour and efficiency, at the same time as keeping one eye on how close the bombs were getting.

And although I have always prided myself on my ‘socialist’ leanings, I find myself wondering if the morons will eventually lead us to inevitable right-wing solutions, where the dwindling resources are allocated only to the deserving.

An advertising campaign once said ‘Don’t die of Ignorance.’

If only it were that simple.

(End of rant.)

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