Long-term recipients of health and social care services have been isolated and segregated for too long. This holds true for older people, disabled people, mental health service users, people with learning disabilities and many more.
The system started this, putting people away in separate institutions. The big charities then played their part, each set up to rattle tins for different impairment groups such as the “deaf”, “blind”, “old”, “mentally handicapped”, “spastics” and the rest. Social policies and reorganisations have kept the problem going, compartmentalising people into different groups. Service users were kept separate from the “normal” population and even from each other.
A consequence of all this is that, as service users began to organise in recent years, they tended to band together according to the narrow groups into which they had been put. It’s understandable, but isn’t it time to challenge this? Wouldn’t it be a good idea now for us as service users to begin to link up across user groups and not always just to try to fight our own corner? We know we cross over the usual bureaucratic divisions. We know we are parents as well as disabled people may have learning difficulties and use mental health services, we may be older and live with HIV/Aids.
So long as user groups remain separate from each other, they are as likely as anyone else to retain broader prejudices. You often hear other user groups criticise disabled people for getting better benefits, for instance. Emphasising hierarchies of disadvantage isn’t useful either. The big charities haven’t always helped here, each one stressing that its group faces the highest levels of unemployment, the worst social exclusion, is subject to the greatest number of hate crimes so that it can command the biggest public response. But, as service users, don’t we all face discrimination and exclusion?
Different groups of service users should develop links and strengthen their networks with each other. Already some service user organisations are doing this. There is no reason to assume that the challenges service users face are likely to diminish. This way we are likely to improve our understanding of each other, prevent others setting us against one another, and be able to campaign a lot more effectively for our shared rights and different needs.
Peter Beresford is professor of social policy at Brunel University and long-term mental health service user.
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