Celtic Illumination, part 364, Idiots, imbeciles and mental defectives.
Interestingly enough Colonialist stated yesterday that he found it incredulous that people, who could turn so violent so quickly, would be allowed to simply wander the streets. This, for me anyway, is where the whole world of learning disability gets very interesting. At the beginning of the last century people with learning disabilities were placed in one of four categories, idiots, imbeciles, feeble-minded persons and moral imbeciles. The legal distinction between an idiot and an imbecile was determined in the Idiots Act of 1886. People like Winston Churchill wanted to introduce compulsory labour camps for ‘mental defectives’ and serious discussion about sterilising the feeble minded was all the rage. These days we would call this eugenics.
People were herded into massive Victorian institutions, usually referred to as lunatic asylums. The treatment of patients was horrific and perhaps the most accurate description of their treatment would be to refer to the film, ‘One Few Over The Cuckoo’s Nest.’ Not everyone involved in the care of these people was vicious or uncaring; there were some, hopefully like me, who felt a certain sense of duty not only to protect these people but to improve their lives. There were one hundred and twenty ‘lunatic asylums,’ in the UK where people could be locked up for having sex before marriage or for being gay. It was in the seventies when people began to demand that these institutions should close and the barbaric treatment should cease. Natural Breaks was one of the companies who sprang up because even though the large institutions were actually beginning the process of closing down, they were simply moving their patients into the community where the local authority now had responsibility and all that happened was that people were now contained in smaller units.
It was around the seventies when the movement began to make some progress where it was felt that people had the right to live as normal a life as possible and that where support was needed it should be given. Natural Breaks didn’t want to lose the impact or evidence that these institutions had on the patients. They had a video project where everyone was invited, as and when they felt like it, to sit in front of a camera and tell a story about an incident while in hospital. I watched a few of these videos and was horrified at what people were saying. Tales of staff coming on to a ward in the morning with half a dozen tooth brushes in a mug and telling the twenty patients to get up and wash their teeth. Tubs of clothing being wheeled in and patients actually fighting for some clothing to wear for that day.
I could see that most of these guys had had a hard time and deserved a decent life. I certainly felt that I was in the right place, but as I began to look about me I could see that not everyone was up to the same standard of understanding and ability. I realised that once again one of the subjects we used to discuss in the armed forces had come around again. We always spoke about what we would do if we could re-join the armed forces for a second time, but this time actually know everything that we now knew. Would we join the same trade, would we join at all, what would we do differently? The most interesting answer, I thought, was that you should become a steward, officially recognised as the trade employing people with the lowest intelligent quotas in the forces. Stewards were basically waiters. There would be zero competition and promotion would be at double top speed.
I now found myself in an industry where many people were academically challenged, to say the least, and I’m talking about the staff. I was being made to attend various courses, some of which I found embarrassing, food hygiene, which I remember I completed in the Seaman’s Mission in Bootle where the female instructor was fawning all over me as she had never had anyone score one hundred percent before. I’m sure it was my legs, the other staff attending the course were not impressed as they now thought they had a smart arse in their midst. One of the courses was how to restrain someone who is trying to kill you. A useful course in the field of learning disabilities I can tell you but one which involved endless discussion about the rights of the person attacking you. I’m sorry, but if it is three o clock in the morning and someone is coming at you with a claw hammer, intent on taking your head off, that persons human rights doesn’t come in to it.
We were shown how to restrain someone on a chair, or on the floor, making sure at all times that we didn’t hurt them. One course actually advocated a type of martial art which really didn’t go down well at Natural Breaks. Another course I attended was totally freaky. It was led by a hefty young lady who gave us all a sheet of paper from a flip chart and asked us to draw our most perfect retreat. I can’t remember what I produced but I do remember that she drew a small cottage in the middle of some mountains, with a stick figure on a bicycle in the distance. She said that she wanted to live in the Scottish Highlands, on her own, and that once a week a big hairy Scot, in a kilt, would cycle over to her cottage and ‘service’ her. I didn’t find her sentiment strange just the fact that the course was supposed to be about dealing with violent people.
What she said was that we would all be on edge and the poor fellow we were with could sense this, so, what we had to do was think and believe that, ‘I am not here to hurt you. I like you.’ Most of us wondered if this would be possible if someone was swinging a chair at your head, but this was a much respected course, so we nodded in agreement that we would follow her directions. I was on duty straight after that course with the fellow who had been on an eight to one ratio with the local authority. I would be on my own with him for eight hours. There was another member of the team on call should he be needed, but it was frowned on to use the on call. I remember walking in to the front room of his house and from the state of the place could see that he, ‘was on one’. A technical term describing the frustration the patient might display.
As I stepped in to the room he looked at me and growled. He was standing in the centre of the room and as normal had stripped off all his clothes and urinated on them. I forced myself to think ‘I am not here to hurt you. I like you.’ I tried to relax but my experience of this fellow really did have me tense up, I know I’m usually brilliant, but I’m still only human, just. Truthfully I could not believe what happened next, the fellow calmed down and came over and gave me a cuddle. It was fantastic, it was something we all looked for at the beginning of a shift, not the absolute pleasure of having a naked man hug you, but it was an indication that he was calm and you should have an incident free shift. Some of his behaviour originated from the lunatic asylum where he had been kept for most of his life. Because of the fight for clothes every morning he would grab as many garments as he could and put them on no matter what they looked like.
So we had to control his clothes, if allowed he would wear every garment that he owned and if he then began to suffer stress he would rip them all off so that we were constantly on the lookout for clothes for him. Furniture as well, as quite often he would smash up the flat where he lived. But it was his medication that worried me the most. It was pretty strong stuff as you may imagine, and was very strictly controlled, to a point where we would have to call a doctor in if we had administered our quota. It was a worry that the pill count would never add up and everyone was under suspicion. What we discovered really knocked me for six, One fellow on the team would give this guy his medication at the beginning of his shift just in case he may have ‘gone on one.’ Thing is, he didn’t record it, so we could have killed this poor fellow thinking we were giving him a prescribed dose of medication when in fact we could have been giving him an overdose.
So for me the world of learning disabilities opened up a whole new challenge. A world where both the patients and the staff needed me, it was a world I really enjoyed working in and one where I could make a difference and I was in the right place. Natural Breaks, Merseyside, was regarded as one if not the leading learning disability company in the UK. Like yourselves I often questioned this claim, how on earth do you gauge one company against another? One day I asked Jan, Jan was the boss of Natural Breaks and because it was so difficult to get people to work with our troublesome character, Jan would often take over a shift from you. I think I had completed twenty four hours solid with our fellow and had had enough. Jan pulled up in her car and said she was taking him out. I asked how it could be claimed that we were the best company in the UK and Jan explained that all you had to do was note how many people from other companies came to see what we did and how we did it. Another penny fell and as I watched her put the fellow in her car, I saw what other people must have seen, it was the attitude. Jan had put the fellow in the front seat of her car and was telling me that she was having a family barbeque at her house, which is where she was taking him.