Lately, I’ve been spending time talking to the next generation of nurses and social workers: an increasingly large part of their courses looks at things from service users’ points of view, comparing and contrasting these with social theory and professional experiences.
One of the most encouraging things is that these students seem to be driven by a sense of social justice. I shouldn’t have expected anything less. But I have found a lack of understanding of how much attitudes towards social care have changed in the past 30 years. I’ve found myself giving miniature history lessons in an attempt to show students that many disabled people have grown up in a system that was much more discriminatory and disempowering than today’s.
Thirty years ago, adult care was mainly institutional, rather than social. With the possible exception of people with sensory impairments, few adults with disabilities could aspire to live independently. Parents of infants with learning difficulties were often encouraged to give up their children with the reassurance that they would lead safer, happier lives in communities with other people with learning difficulties. The truth is, many people were subjected to institutional and personal abuse, with little freedom to develop intimate relationships, earn a living or involve themselves in their local communities.
Developing a mental illness would often involve long – if not permanent – stays in large mental hospitals, with little freedom or independence. The stigma of mental illness and the public fear of the mentally ill were greater than it is today, which made it more difficult to live outside these institutions.
People with medium or severe physical disabilities were often put wherever there was space – residential nursing homes, even in the large learning disability hospitals. Independent living was out of the question, unless you were rich or Stephen Hawking.
Whatever the difficulties we face now in social care, we should remember how much things have moved on what we now see as rights were, within living memory, only dreams.