Allan Mayer’s Weblog

Posts Tagged ‘Open University

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 http://www.open.ac.uk/hsc/ldsite/research_grp.html

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


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