The examples of unofficial social policy that I cited included Wolfensberger’s concept of Normalisation, O’Brien’s Five Accomplishments and Towell’s Ordinary Life principle. These radical ideas were picked up by brave and innovative leaders, and the rank and file as well. But it was an uphill struggle and those of us engaged at the time were in a minority. I recall hearing Professor Nick Bosanquet, a champion of people’s rights and a radical himself, speaking at a conference in the late 1980s describing the radicals campaigning for better lives for people with learning disabilities as ‘partisans moving from one safe house to another.’
Starting in the mid-1970s and throughout the 1980s there was fervour, a sense of urgency. People were demanding change. Hospitals started to close and community-based supports were being developed. A reforming zeal spread through the grass roots. Supporting people with learning disabilities to leave institutions was more than merely a job, it was a just cause.
"There are still 3000 people with learning disabilities in ATUs and private hospitals. No change at all."
The creation of Choice Support is an example of unofficial social policy forcing progress and change in the face of inert official social policy. In 1984 a small group of activists held a conference in South London and decided to do something to support the closure of Darenth Park Hospital, in Kent, the first large long stay institution in England to close. The result was the formation of Southwark Consortium, later to become Choice Support.
Have things got better since the early 1990s when I was bemoaning the ineffectiveness of official social policy? No. They have got considerably worse. The policy of successive governments (Labour, Lib Dem/Conservative coalition and Conservative) first worked against the interests of people with learning disabilities, was then less exciting than a damp squib and now is even less effective than when I started to challenge it. Let me give you three examples:
Where does that leave us? With the exception of the failing Transforming Care programme there is very little official social policy relating directly to people with learning disabilities around at the moment. So we have choices. We can do nothing and let the inertia that is already setting in stifle innovation and progress whilst we wait (maybe for a long time) for new official social policy. That, history tells us, will be ineffective anyway. Or we can take matters into our own hands and take action. This is what we are doing at Choice Support – pioneering new ways of thinking and new ways of working relying largely on unofficial social policy.
There is a compelling need for change, but I don’t think it will come through official social policy. Rather, it will come through passionate, committed and creative leadership, willing to test boundaries and ask difficult questions. Leadership that creates new unofficial social policy that can inspire this generation, just as radicals like Wolfensberger and O’Brien inspired a generation 30 years ago.
Steven Rose, Chief Executive
* Rose, S.J. (1993). Social Policy: A perspective on Service Developments and Inter-Agency working. In Brigdon, P., & Todd, M. (eds): Concepts in Community Care for People with a Learning Difficulty. Macmillan Publishing, Basingstoke.
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