the stockton centre saga: closing time for disability institutions
You’ve probably heard of the large-scale movement to close institutions during the 1970s-80s. When we talk about institutions, icy cold baths, electric shock therapy, straight jackets and lobotomies probably spring to mind. It’s no wonder; institutions have quite an unsavoury history and it is commonly believed that institutions and the inhumane practices contained within are just that; history. However, decades later there remain more than 50 large institutions officially recorded in Australia, accommodating around 2500 people with disabilities. There are also many more who live in places like nursing homes and smaller facilities.
The conditions and practices within these facilities have generally improved dramatically. But in many ways institutions remain the same old service driven settings that they were in the mid 20th century. Violence within these settings persists as a major contemporary concern. Institutions fundamentally remain a place for people with disabilities ‘to go’ because supports and acceptance are sorely lacking in the general community.
At the moment, all eyes are on the notorious Stockton Centre in NSW, which accommodates around 400 people with disabilities. The Government is closing the centre and a number of others like it in NSW by 2018. The decision came with the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS); the biggest reform to the disability support system in a life time. As well as billions of extra dollars going into disability supports, the funding structure has been turned on its head. The Government becomes the facilitator of disability supports, while non-profits and private businesses expand their existing role as support providers. People with significant disabilities access individual funding packages to purchase the supports they choose from the providers they choose. No need for a place ‘to go’ anymore, because supports will be attached to people with disabilities wherever they live.
Should this come as welcome news? A great deal of controversy has emerged, with two sharply opposing sides of the public debate.
On one side we have Disabled People’s Organisations and disability advocates celebrating the closure. President of People with Disabilities Australia, Craig Wallace, describes some of the flaws in institutional living: ‘[o]ne of the many issues with centres like Stockton is that housing supports were wrapped up in disability supports, so people were trapped in this model and can’t escape. They have to stay in the old model to get any support.’
Members of the Community Disability Alliance Hunter wrote that it is a fundamental human right to live in the community. They explain ‘institutional care does not meet contemporary standards… research indicates that when people with disability leave institutions and live in the community they experience improvements in health, social participation and well-being.’
On the other side we have a proportion of the families of Stockton Centre residents and the NSW Nurses and Midwives Association fiercely protesting the closure. They are not convinced that community based alternatives will meet contemporary standards any better than an institution. They refer to the extensive facilities at the Centre, including onsite nursing care, GPs, dentists, a gym, a swimming pool and sports oval. They worry that some people are “too disabled” to live in the community and that the accountability and quality assurances of non-government providers are inadequate.
So, if the Stockton Centre residents had choice, what would their decisions be? Where are their voices in all of this? I sifted through news article after news article and eventually found one small glimpse of an insider’s opinion in the Newcastle Herald:
‘David was adamant he wanted to move away from Stockton.’
‘But [his mother] says experience tells her that a large, protected space like Stockton is the very best of addresses for her son. “Turn your back on him for five minutes and he will have got himself onto a bus somewhere, and talked the driver into taking him even without the money for the fare,” she said.’
Just like that, David’s views were dismissed, pushed back under the hoards of voices seen as more valuable, more legitimate. Here you go David, have some space to share your perspective. After all, the closure of the Stockton Centre affects you and your co-residents most.
The unfortunate truth is that people with disabilities, their support people, friends and families, and the community at large are taught that people with disabilities are not able or welcome to live in the general community, or indeed to enjoy the freedom of catching buses around town. The lack of media coverage of the views of Stockton Centre residents teaches us that their opinions about their very own lives aren’t even welcome. We are taught that if people with disabilities do live in the community they are shunned, denied essential supports, live in poverty, and perhaps wind up in the criminal justice system; prison the place for them ‘to go’ in the absence of institutions.
The problem is not that some people with disabilities are ‘too disabled’. The problem is the negative community attitudes and practices that keep people with disabilities in institutions and out on the fringes. The good news is we can change our attitudes and practices. Just as women shouldn’t have to lock themselves at home to stay ‘safe’ from violence, people with disabilities shouldn’t be locked away in institutions to keep ‘safe’ from an unfair society. Society should become a safe place for everyone.
Institutions are a place for people with disabilities ‘to go’ because there has been nowhere else with adequate supports available. In the 21st century we are well over due for a time when people with disabilities choose where they live on an equal basis with people without disabilities. The NDIS provides the framework to achieve this; we just need to see a change in our community attitudes to go with it. Unless a significant number of Stockton Centre residents expressly want the Centre to stay open so that they can remain living there, knowing fully the alternatives available to them, then it is very much closing time.