We haven’t learned from the past: Gary Bourlet on #UnderLockAndKey

Last night there was a programme on Channel 4 about St Andrews Hospital. It’s called Under Lock And Key.

It was awful to watch, but very important to watch.

Here, Learning Disability England’s Co-Founder Gary Bourlet shares his thoughts on places like St Andrews.

LDE Co-Founder Gary Bourlet

Institutions like St Andrews are inhumane, socially unacceptable and show the lack of respect there is for people with learning disabilities. These places are like prisons. People with learning disabilities are being sent to them not because they’ve committed a crime, but because of their disability. They’re hidden away from the public like in the 19th and 20th centuries. They are robbed of their choice and their power.

In hospitals like St Andrews, your entire life is limited. You’re told what you can and can’t do. You’re told where to live, you don’t control your own money, you’re not allowed to take risks. Risks are important and people with learning disabilities should be supported to take them like anyone else.

The effect of being in places like St Andrews is damaging. It doesn’t just affect people with learning disabilities – it affects their families and the people around them. They’ve been punished as well.

We haven’t learned from the past – we’ve known for ages that institutions have cut people off from their families, they’ve been places of abuse and have left people with learning disabilities living in fear. Institutions should have been shut down by now, especially when you’ve had self-advocates like Mabel Cooper campaigning for a long time, talking about their experiences of what these places are like.

The fact that places like St Andrews have not been shut down shows that somebody’s not listening. Nobody’s listening. The fact that these places still exist shows that the medical profession still thinks that they know best. Professionals and politicians think that institutions like St Andrews are the cheaper option, but they aren’t. They cost a fortune and it’s money badly spent.

I’m inspired by Mabel Cooper, who has talked about her experiences of an institution and was the person who got to press the button to demolish it. We need to do this for all institutions. They need to go.

Instead of locking people up we need to provide care for people with learning disabilities in the community. We need to make sure that people have got the services they need where they are, so they don’t have to be moved. People with learning disabilities should have choices. They should be able to choose where to live and who to live with. They shouldn’t be segregated from the rest of the community. For people without learning disabilities who haven’t been in institutions, it seems obvious that relationships are an important part of their lives. So why are people with learning disabilities not supported to build friendships and relationships? Institutions cut you off from other people.

It’s not good enough to close the hospitals down and pretend they never happened. We need to be witnesses to what happened in these places. We also need to make sure that people have the support they need when they leave hospitals, including emotional support. They should have counselling to help them heal from their horrific experiences.

There needs to be memorials for people who have died in these places. There should be a museum about the horrific times that people have had so it’s not forgotten about.

By Gary Bourlet