'In the Street, People Turned Away in Embarrassment' as a Young Student at Cardiff University, Jim Mansell Volunteered to Work with Children and Young People Living at Ely Hospital. He Is Now Emeritus Professor of Learning Disability at the Tizard Centre, University of Kent

Article excerpt

FOR me, the story starts in a large room. A hot, stuffy room in which the smell of sweat and urine and excrement was overpowering.

The room was sparsely furnished and much of what was there was damaged or broken. Sitting on the chairs around the edge of the room, or lying on the floor, or standing in a corner, were children and young people.

Some of them had their heads shaved, some were nearly naked.

High on the wall in a corner a television competed with piped radio music for attention.

There was nothing - absolutely nothing - to do.

A member of staff sat in a corner doing her best to keep the peace, or got on with housekeeping tasks. Hour after hour, day after day was like this.

The clothing was communal, and laundry so primitive that much clothing was destroyed. In a side room, the charge nurse kept a set of 'best' clothes for each person, to be protected from the laundry and so to be hardly ever worn.

When people went out, there was not enough under-clothing. Trousers were held up with pins and string. People wore gabardine raincoats, shiny with spittle and stinking of sweat.

In the street, people turned away in embarrassment or silently pressed money for ice creams into one's hand.

When Richard Crossman, newly appointed as Secretary of State for Social Services, read the report of the Committee of Inquiry at Ely Hospital, he said it completely substantiated the newspaper story that had made the original allegations.

What had happened at the end of the 1960s was that mental handicap hospitals had been suddenly opened up to public inspection by the detailed reporting of allegations, the calls for inquiries, the day-by-day proceedings of those inquiries held in public and their eventual findings.

And what the public saw was squalor and inhumanity on a scale wider than ever shown before. The hospital inquiries were probably the major factor responsible for the policy review which led to the 1971 White Paper Better, Services for the Mentally Handicapped.

There now began a movement to replace these hospitals with decent services; services built on the principle that people with learning disabilities have the right to help and support to live a good life in the community.

Just as Ely had provided the spur to action, now Cardiff was at the forefront of developing this new model of services.

The most important lesson from the closure of Ely Hospital is that institutional attitudes do not die when the hospital closes. The institution - in the sense of the prejudices and weaknesses that produced it in the first place - is in us all. …