Knocking down institutional walls

There are few benefits to austerity. Thankfully, says Andy Rickell, one of them is that closer attention is paid to whether something is really worth the money and resources it uses. Such a case is the Remploy factories.

Remploy factories and similar sheltered workplaces, like day centres, special schools and residential homes, are institutionalised provision. At best they may have had a role in less enlightened times, but are now dangerous anachronisms that give oxygen to people with bigoted and ignorant minds and their associated political views who want to justify disabled people’s exclusion from the mainstream wherever it remains possible. The politics of moving away from such institutional provision always seems to be similar. There is strong opposition from the managers in such places – often non-disabled people who have acquired status in this dependency-creating microcosm.

The disabled people who have received such services will nearly always support the retention of the status quo and join the opposition to closure. This is hardly surprising. They will have been told time and again by those with a vested interest how much they need these services and how bad it will be once they are gone. They will also worry about the loss of the social networks that are associated with such institutions – the relationships may not be as good as they might be elsewhere, but it’s better the devil you know. And in such a dependency-creating world they will want to hold on to what they have because they can see no mechanism to give them something else that is under their control. And parents and families will similarly fight for retention. It is a strong politician who is willing to go against such a well-organised group of voters, who are often able to get extra support through a media who likes the people against the politician story.

The key to unlocking institutionalisation in residential homes was the creation of direct payments by disabled people in the 1980s. The subsequent development of direct payments for all social care has been and is the means by which day centres can be consigned to history. What disabled person with the money in their hands would pay to sit around with other disabled people paying for expensive staffing structures and bricks and mortar? And the further development of direct payments to cover employment support too will mean that disabled people can choose where they go for such support – and lots of disabled people’s organisations able to sell their services directly to disabled people are gagging for the chance to do so. This will create a virtual circle of financially sustainable capacity building by disabled people to support one another.

It is crucial that there is proper support for those disabled people directly affected by the Remploy closures – us activists want the right principled outcome, and the right people outcome too. And it’s vital that the money saved gets into disabled people’s hands.

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