One of the most joyful periods of my career in healthcare management was when I was working alongside adults with a learning disability and their families. This period from about 1979 to 1988 was the most satisfying time of my entire career.
People with a learning disability are often misunderstood by society and at that time, I and two other colleagues formed a team that was charged with the responsibility to close a large hospital that housed 140 patients and re-housing those people into smaller homes in the local community.
I've lost count of the number of public meetings I had to attend as fears in the local neighbourhood resulted in negative publicity about these people. Many local people believed the 'patients’ were dangerous. The most oft voiced opinion was something on the lines – ‘I agree with the principle of these people leaving hospital but I think they would be better situated somewhere else in the town rather than in our locality.’
I am delighted to know things have changed somewhat in the last 20 years because of the battles fought by many parents who refused to accept that their child should be locked away in some isolated asylum away from society.
I remember reading a report many years ago about the fight for people with a learning disability to have the right to vote. The title of that report was ‘Make us Citizens and Watch us Grow’ – I love that title and unfortunately I have never been able to find the report anywhere despite numerous Google searches!
Some of the nicest people I ever met in my life had a label placed on them by society that read ‘learning disability.’
That period of my life was without doubt the most influential in forming my views about disability and stereotyping. I like to think I keep an open mind about these things.
The best advice I had on the subject was from a wonderful Doctor I had the pleasure of working with for 4 years. He said to me the first time I met him;
‘Just spend time with the patients and their families and keep an open mind – that is all I ask of you as a manager.’
What brilliant advice.