The Simon Heng column

I was chairing a meeting of one of our service user groups earlier
in the month, and found myself becoming frustrated by the way that
some of my colleagues kept veering off the subject under
discussion, to the point where it was almost impossible to get to
the end of any agenda item.

It has always been understood that most service users haven’t been
trained in businesslike meetings skills. In fact, we have
encouraged each other to express ourselves freely, recognising that
telling our stories usually has some relevance to the discussion –
eventually. It means that our decisions are well informed but we
rarely get to the end of an agenda.

Looking back on the meeting, I realised that all of the diversions
were about one of three things: people were concerned that they
wouldn’t get written details of the decisions we had made about
future meetings, or that they would be let down by the transport
arrangements, or the discussion had reminded them of a long-held
grievance about their care or treatment.

It seemed to me that these were expressions of people who felt
extremely vulnerable. What they seemed to be communicating was that
they felt at the mercy of others’ actions, and that they had
experienced being let down too much. An understandable response to
this would be to try to set the arrangements in concrete – hence
the badgering. I wondered why people didn’t choose to write down
details for themselves, until I realised that many – perhaps most –
of them had lived lives that had encouraged dependency (perhaps
inadvertently), and old habits die hard.

It also explained why some of the participants felt prompted to
tell their stories of feelings of oppression, times of uncertainty
and disappointment, and feelings of anger.

Service users with all sorts of disabilities are, rightly, being
encouraged to take responsibility for their lives, to involve
themselves in decision-making about the services they need, to
engage with the rest of the community. But decades of immersion in
a dependency culture take a long time, and some help, to shake off.

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