It is certainly true that the people with learning disabilities and their carers have a struggle on their hands when they wish to apply for funding to some authorities in order to live in village communities. Such people, including my own family, cannot understand why there is such opposition, indeed why there is a debate at all, as it seems self-evident that a ‘village’ community suits our own daughter’s needs and choices. We feel that such communities should be one of several options accessible to all if they need and desire it. The greater the diversity the better, so that all lifestyles, tastes, interests and so on can be catered for. We feel that people wanting village communities are a minority, but nonetheless deserving of attention and provision. We have no objection to any other kind of residential accommodation, as long as people choose and need it. Any refusal of a particular sort of provision is surely undemocratic, prescriptive and unjust. We feel that inclusion is best served by diversity and flexibility as long as accommodation and lifestyle are of high quality, outward-looking and satisfy the need and choices of those who live there.
Perhaps ‘village’ community is a misnomer, because of course they are not villages. Some are large, others small, some rural, others in small towns or even in dispersed housing in large towns. What unites them is that they have a community philosophy, a focus and life of their own, as well as being part of wider society. Perhaps ‘community of interest’ is a better description.
We know of so many people who live very happily in such communities. Our own daughter, aged twenty-five, lives in a Camphill community based on four homes, three very near the centre of a smallish town and the other a nearby farm. The accommodation is homely and family-based, with six or so people with learning disabilities and several co-workers who provide exceptional personal and medical care. There is constant activity, interaction and social contact, with much coming and going, in safety, between houses, workplace and community activities. Work is part and parcel of our daughter’s life and she makes a real contribution to the social and economic fabric of the community. Her lifelong needs in education, particularly in number work and social skills, are exceptionally well provided and her leisure interests—drama and so on—are amply catered for. She has a spiritual side, too, which the community life-cycle emphasises so effectively. More than anything else, she is exceptionally happy, calm, confident and positive. The Steiner-based philosophy underpinning the Camphill movement, which is the largest provider of communities in the UK, focuses on the development of the worth and uniqueness of each person and on a vital, calm community ethos. On top of all this, there is much coming and going to and from the local community, its pubs, cafés, shops, churches, cinemas, theatre groups and so on. Such an effective structure, outgoing, dynamic kind, and stable, provides a life that my daughter responds to very positively. It is a constant and dependable form of care which will provide, we hope, a wonderful, lifelong experience long after we are dead and gone.
We feel that there are compelling reasons, apart from their eminently suitable care, why village communities should be included as a residential option in a more unequivocal way. As society has become more ‘liberation’- and ‘choice’-based, so must decision-making for people with learning disabilities. The new emphasis on human rights places a special duty on those with power to treat more equally and fairly those whom they serve. For instance, denying people an out-of-county placement, which satisfactorily fulfils their needs and choices, is a denial of liberty and justice. The new anti-discrimination legislation, too, highlights the need to prevent discrimination both collectively and individually in the everyday process of decision making. Generally the thrust of recent policy has been to minimise the professional culture which imposed services and decisions from above. Also, recent research, such as the Hester Action Phase 2 research, has shown, admirably, that different kinds of accommodation have different strengths for different needs and choices of lifestyles; hence the need to provide much greater diversity and flexibility—including village communities of several different kinds for people to choose from. Incidentally, this research showed exceptional levels of satisfaction and support for village communities from families and carers, as well as indicating that communities are somewhat cheaper than other forms of accommodation. (Camphill communities are cheaper still.)
Perhaps village communities are at last getting the recognition they truly deserve, as indicated in developments in some European countries and in the new [UK] Department of Health strategy White Paper where choice and village communities are really highlighted. Village communities deserve better than the hurtful dismissal shown to them in recent years by some, but not all, authorities and professionals.