Remembering for the Future is the name of the conference held at Liverpool Hope University on 2nd September. It was a joyous occasion, maybe because, unusually for an academic conference, self advocates outnumbered academics, albeit by a small margin. The conference was about looking at history and asking if it can help us understand what is happening today; and help to plot a way forward.
I was only able to attend 1 in 3 of the sessions, and the generously timed plenary. From what I observed, the conference more than fulfilled its aim of illuminating the present by reference to the past.
Big recurring themes included the state of self advocacy today, and its decline since the heyday in the 1990s. A lot of the self advocates there recalled how it had been 20 years ago. Said Lou Townson, once self advocates and staff were friends, but now, if a staff member at her People First group gives out their number, they are disciplined, and the PF member is asked to delete the number. Gary Bourlet remembered that the leading self advocacy groups regularly met together, knew one another well, and were able to plan campaigns as a result. He also remembered being asked to choose between 2 PF groups who were vying to lead self advocacy in England. He declined to take sides.
A lot of this decline is explained by funding models. In the 90s groups were funded by the National Lottery. They were able to operate independently, and with confidence of continuing funding. Since Valuing People in 2001 money for self advocacy became the responsibility of Local Authorities. Under the twin pressures of being required to prove value for money, and austerity cutting into Local Authority budgets this funding has dried up. Some groups have found other ways to survive, others have gone to the wall. But everyone present agreed that self advocacy in England has lost touch with its grass roots, and is driven by project funding, leaving little time to nurture new talent, or to make contact with other groups. And yet, with austerity biting into people’s income and support it is more than ever needed.
The conference energised people to think of ways to revive self advocacy. A pride day. Crowd funding for a national conference in 2017, to reconnect and renergise the movement. Great to see this, and a job for Learning Disability England and its well wishers to make this happen.
Another theme was a stubborn failure to fundamentally change the disadvantages, slights and abuse experienced by people with learning disabilities. Members of Mersey PF responded energetically to Steve Mee’s question, why do some people think it is ok to punish the people with learning disabilities they are looking after. TO Steve’s credit, he only got through 3 of his slides, so energetic was the audience response to his exposition of Wolfensberger’s explanation of how devaluing images of people with learning disabilities play into staff behaviour. So many examples were quoted. To me, the most memorable was a self advocate describing how ‘bad’ behaviour led to her being pinned to the floor while tra quilling drugs we pumped into her bum. And when she protested staff saying ‘you Re only here because no one else wanted you’. How brave to remember that, and to survive to tell the tale and fight back.
I ended the day feeling more optimistic, energised and determined than I have for some time. and wondering why self advocates have never adopted the idea of describing themselves as ‘survivors’ of a degrading and dehumanising system.
Thanks due to Lee Humber, to Liverpool Hope University for hosting, and to Mersey People First who helped organise it and turned up in force. As well as all the people who gave papers and joined in with gusto.