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My complete failure to bring anything positive into the life of Jane should, in any rational universe, have been tank-trap roadblock in the path to my future involvement in learning disability service provision, but learning disability seems to inhabit a looking-glass world where everything is back to front.

Debouching from University into what a friend characterised as ‘a nice little recession’, my degree certificate was of no value, but the fact that I had some practical acquaintance with learning disability was enough to obtain me a post in the Social Work Department of a Scottish Regional Council, specifically as the assistant manager of a ‘Mental Handicap Day Centre’.

The Centre was a triumph of two-birds-with-one-stone for the Regional Council.  It kept adults with learning disabilities corralled, and it boosted the apparent success rates of their Training and Enterprise Council, as the Care Assistants were exclusively recruited from Youth Trainees.  The day-to-day running of the Centre, however, was in the hands of a church-based charitable organisation, which also ran a residential home for ‘Mentally Handicapped Adults’, from which a number of our clients were drawn.  It was, I suppose, an early example of the ‘contract culture‘ or ‘commissioner-provider’ model that is still causing controversies.

The Centre itself was based in what I think must once have been the Parish School attached to a large, beautiful but dilapidated Arts and Crafts church.  The main room reminded me of the Victorian core of my primary school: a space big enough for two or three classes, with walls matchboarded to shoulder-height, high windows single-glazed in wavery antique glass with protective mesh panels outside, visible solid trusses supporting a steeply-pitched roof.  Vicious draughts emanated from the windows and door, whipped round corners and bit your ankles.  “Whit’ll we dae when the sna’ fa’s?”, moaned one of the YT assistants.

What we did, long before the first flakes fluttered down, was make our first task each morning the firing up of an ancient boiler that, if you were in luck, chuntered away to itself and got the fat cast-iron radiators up to a respectable heat by mid-morning.  Until then, you made sure you were wearing your thermals and three pairs of socks.  At the back of the schoolroom a door led into a passageway with the lavatories (clean, but cold and dark) on one side and the kitchens (ditto) on the other, and at the far end, a freezing drill hall.  In the summer, we did lunchtime physical exercise and relaxation sessions in the drill hall for those who wanted to join in, but from October to April, it was too cold.  The kitchens were long and narrow, with food-prep and servery areas at one end, and a multi-sink scullery beyond.  Here, we and the clients home-cooked lunches on a rota basis – huge pots of stovies, massive macaroni cheeses, cauldrons of soup accompanied by soda-bread or cheese scones, vast potato-topped fish pies.

For some reason that I never really understood, the clients were referred to as ‘trainees’.  There was a fiction that the activities we provided were enhancing their life-skills, independence and employability.  The women knitted or sewed toys and cushions; the men did ‘woodwork’, mainly consisting of sanding down and painting old slam-lidded school desks.  At the end of each week, each received a brown-paper ‘pay-packet’, containing a handwritten ‘wage-slip’ for the princely sum of 15p per day’s attendance.  “‘Aat’ll no’ even buy ye a pint”, remarked Alec, one of the oldest ‘trainees’.  “‘Aat’s no’ even pocket-money.”  He spat reflectively out of the door.  Still, we were obliged solemnly to dock 15p for every day’s absence….

Besides ‘work’ and cookery, ‘trainees’ also got support with things like shopping, doctor visits, and interviews with their official social workers, and the Care Assistants, in fulfillment of the ‘Training’ aspect of their employment, got half a day a week to attend a college-based course of their choosing.

The clients were almost all senior to the staff.  The youngest ‘trainee’ was 36, and the rest were between 40 and 65.  The staff, on the other hand (the manageress excepted) were all 25 or younger, since you got slung off Youth Training once you turned 26.  None of the staff, myself and the manageress included, had any formal training in learning disability.  The supervisor from the church charity had some form of social-work training, although I suspected, from observing some of the things she said and did, that it had probably been of the ‘sitting next to Nellie’ kind.  We were all operating from our own personal experiences and prejudices, and I found some of the supervisor’s prejudices fairly horrifying.

Some of the Care Assistants had no interest in the ‘trainees’ or their welfare.  They had been given a choice between taking the placement or losing their benefits, so naturally they had taken the placement – but had no intention of doing more than an absolute minimum of work.  One girl took off every day that she was ‘entitled’ to under the statutory sick pay scheme; one of the lads furnished himself with the bulk of his family’s Christmas presents by gradually abstracting ‘trainees’ equipment and craftwork during December.  Neither was sanctioned; the supervisor knew better than to rock the boat at Regional HQ by drawing attention to the shortcomings of the staff provided.

It sounds – and it was – shoddy:  makeshift, unfocussed, under-resourced.  But most of the staff were genuinely concerned for the ‘trainees’; had a sense of solidarity with them; cared about their welfare (to the point of giving some of their own time to circumvent what they saw as unacceptable aspects of official policies); provided a space that the clients saw as safe and their own; applied themselves to devising and providing the best services that they could within very restrictive limitations.  While it may have been little or no better, was it any worse than the ‘non-building-based’ services for ‘access to the community’, which are all that is currently on offer, in many areas, to learning-disabled adults?