Friday 7 February 2014

This January past marked the thirtieth anniversary of the start of independent living for people with disabilities. In that month in 1983 John Evans left Le Court, a Cheshire Home in Liss, Hampshire, to live in his own home, with the support of paid personal assistants. This effectively marked the start of the Independent Living Movement in the UK.

Over the 30 years that have passed since then John Evans has continued to devote his life to promoting independent living and disability rights throughout the UK and Europe, as well playing an active role in the movement across the world.

Earlier last month an event* was held in Southampton as a tribute to his work and to mark the 30-year anniversary of those hugely important events. It charted the journey that both the Independent Living Movement, and John himself, have made over those 30 years, from the early days in a residential care home at Le Court, where the seeds of independent living in the UK were first sown, to Strasbourg, where John and other activists from across Europe regularly gather to campaign for disabled peoples rights to independent living and inclusion.

Here, Ed Walton, senior community development officer in Hampshire County Councils inclusion and engagement team pays tribute on behalf of the County and his colleagues to the remarkable achievements that have flowed through the years since.

Thirty years is a significant milestone in any journey, and this particular milestone in this particular journey serves as a timely opportunity to reflect on just how far we have travelled.

Then we look back at the challenges faced and overcome, either as individuals or organisations, we can learn from past experiences; we can take heart from what has been achieved, and we can face-up to todays challenges with renewed vigour knowing that real change is possible,  even if it takes time.

For this blog, I have been encouraged to reflect on the input the county council officers and members had in the development of independent living. Before I do, I think the most important thing to note is that, had it not been for the aspirations of that handful of individuals collectively know as Project 81 - and their determination to challenge the status quo, there would never have been a response from Hampshire, and I am mindful of that.

I wasnt here working for Hampshire thirty years ago, but what is clear to me from the way the department operates now is that this is an authority that is proud of its heritage and history with regards to independent living. This has helped to ensure that a culture of dialogue and discussion with service users and carers is integral to the work of adult services today and this will no doubt continue into the future.

There is, of course, still considerable room for improvement, but we know things were markedly different thirty years ago. The notion that professionals knew best was still the prevailing mind-set at that time and so when residents at Le Court, a Cheshire home in East Hampshire, instigated discussions around living independently in the community, it is of great credit to the professionals involved that they were prepared to consider what was being proposed. Had the staff at Le Court not been prepared to listen, independent living might never have come this far.

Reading through the literature produced in the 1980s by Project 81 and Hampshire Centre for Independent Living, it is clear it took considerable time for professionals to come round to the new ideas. Fortunately, and thanks to the perseverance and persistence of those involved, people came round eventually. As is often the case, showing can be far more powerful than saying, and the fact that disabled people made the trip to California to learn more about approaches to independent living in the USA serves as a neat example of independence in action.

In my view, the most important role played by officers and members was to keep the dialogue going, to listen to what people wished to achieve, to recognise the right to independence, and to work with individuals to find practical ways to make things work, initially at a personal level before looking to take the learning and tackle the issues strategically.

In order to do this, a select few officers listened to what was being proposed and worked to influence others in order to identify ways to change what was within our control. We also worked with partners locally and nationally to ensure that the need to address issues outside of the county councils control was on the agenda. We took significant risks also, particularly in challenging some of the legal assumptions around the transfer of resources with which to arrange care and support. We also took every opportunity to ensure that disabled people could raise issues with key decision makers such as the leader of the county council, the county treasurer, local MPs. I think the secretary of state directly intervened at some points too.

One of the officers who made a real difference, the late Derek Baillie, devised a strategic approach to enable independent living in the 1990s it was called Positive Partnerships. We have recently revisited that strategy and refreshed it for todays context, a commissioning strategy involving a range of partners including user-led organisations.

It is remarkable to consider now how forward thinking that approach was then, eventually growing into the Hampshire model for Personalisation, following 2008s Commission on Personalisation, the biggest listening exercise Hampshire had ever undertaken.

Since then weve further developed our approach to engagement because we have seen how it can make all the difference. After all, the principles and values discussed between a handful of disabled people 30 years ago in a Hampshire residential home have not only influenced, but radically altered, social care policy both nationally and internationally. This has only happened because people were prepared to listen and act on what they heard, and we must continue to do that.

Ed Walton, senior community development officer, Hampshire County Council

*The celebration was organised by Spectrum CIL in honour of John Evans OBEs lifelong achievements. For further information, please go to scanmail.trustwave.com