When I was a child in the 60s and 70s it was common practice to send disabled children away to boarding schools to be 'looked after'. Many children never went home again, going from one institution to another and some children died there. These are realities that we lived with throughout our childhood.
However the most damaging aspect of these places was the bullying that went on at every level. These days we would call it abuse but back then we had no vocabulary to describe what went on and this made it easier to perpetuate.
My parents, like many others were lulled into the belief that somehow, their children were safer in a segregated environment but recent legal battles involving abuse in residential institutions are only the tip of the iceberg.
This story is dedicated to Brian, June and Gary who died whilst attending the Palace School, Ely in Cambridgeshire. They died young but they will not be forgotten, they left their footprints on my soul.
Amy sat down, she was exhausted after finishing the housework upstairs.
"Just a quick sit down before I start on the downstairs."
She peeled off her pink rubber gloves and flicked through the channels looking for something to watch but there just seemed to be an endless stream of adverts. Most of them aimed at women, telling them that their laundry could always be whiter, their kitchen floors shinier and their children healthier. She smiled.
"Nothing really changes! Women are still being told that their place is in the kitchen."
Housework had always struck her as a boring necessity. Its endless repetition only served to remind her how mundane life really was when you actually got down to it. Yet she had chosen this life. Amy had worked harder than most to be able to clean her own toilets and scrub her own floors. She had been told, as a child, that she could never expect to have a home, a family, a job which, of course, made her more determined to have them.
She thought back to her childhood in the institution where an army of invisible cleaners worked endlessly to keep the immense Gothic building spotless. Everything was regimented, clinical. She remembers how they tried to ‘toilet train’ the children and the trouble she got into when she refused to go at the designated time.
Even the large grounds were manicured to an inch of their lives. Perhaps this is why her home now is chaotic! Luckily, they couldn't sanitize the earth or the globs of white poo left by the ducks and geese. As a child, Amy loved wandering round the gardens, exploring all the nooks and crannies where she imagined all kinds of bad deeds left their ghostly marks on ancient trees and stones.
She had spent the best part of her childhood at that place. Locked away from the real world; only allowing herself to think about home when the school holidays were approaching. Any other time made her homesick and that was a feeling she had to push down at all costs or not survive at all. It had not taken her long to realise that any display of emotional weakness would not be tolerated by the teachers and staff. Seeing how some of the other children were treated made her determined to keep her emotions hidden. Something that would prove difficult to ‘switch off’, in her adult life.
It must have been late October because the mornings were dark when they got up and the evenings dark when they were sent to bed. Amy finally felt settled back in after the long summer holidays and was looking forward to Halloween, Bonfire night and Christmas – it was her favourite time of year at school and she was full of anticipation of attending the harvest festival in the local church and walking down to the park for the community bonfire night. It was on these rare occasions they were allowed out of the school grounds.
It was a Saturday because she was bored. The rain meant that there was no chance of escaping into the garden. Most of her friends had gone home for the weekend but Amy had stopped going home so often because she felt lonely there. Her brother and sister had their own lives now and were always out. Being away so much meant that she had no friends at home. It was better to be bored here with the other children than be at home.
She walked along the grey stone corridor occasionally looking out of the high windows to check the sky. But the rain, by now, had turned into a torrent which constantly ran down the windows making it impossible to tell where one drop ended and another began. The school felt deserted but she knew that most of the children were watching television or playing in the main day room. She also knew that if one of the staff found her wandering around she would be in trouble. She peeked into the staff dining room. They were all in there having a break which, at weekends, seemed to last from breakfast to lunch! She wandered past the headmistress' office and shivered slightly even though it was empty.
"Too many bad memories!"
As she pushed her walking frame up the ramp onto the next level she nearly bumped into June, who was heading towards the day room.
“June, June, please do my nails”.
“No, I don't want to, I don't feel well.”
"Oh come on June, I can't do it, my hands are too shaky. I’ve got loads of colours... Perhaps you could do yours too?”
“No, leave me alone, I'm tired of doing things for you.”
“But you are so good at it, please..”.
June stood her ground and in frustration, Amy hit out at her. The slap was much harder than she had meant it to be and made June cry out. Amy had never hit out like that before and felt instantly ashamed.
“No, I'm so sorry, June, I really didn't mean to hit you..”
They were both crying. June looked really hurt and it was at that moment, Amy realised that she was a bully and had become just like the staff who preyed on the weak, the ones who couldn't fight back. She was both horrified and disgusted with herself. Amy and her friends had always treated June differently because she looked normal and they resented her for that! For the longest time they had treated her like their personal slave despite the fact that she had a weak heart.
“June can you run and get my bag, my coat, my make up!!”
“Hurry up June..”.
Amy had nowhere to hide her shame and her guilt. Yet at fifteen years old, she didn’t know what to do with her emotions either. So, she did what she always did, pushed them down and buried them. Yet, every now and again, after that day, they would echo through the grey stone walls through every room of the institution. The word 'bully' would always be eating into her heart.
June had played along with the constant demands in return for acceptance and a way of surviving the brutality of the system they all found themselves in. Not today though; this was the last day any one would bully June. Amy tried to make it up to June throughout the rest of the day. They talked and played together and her nails were painted perfectly in the brightest red they could find.
That night, they watched 'Starsky and Hutch' together and then climbed the large staircase to bed. June was ahead. Amy thought she had tripped but when she reached her, June was struggling to breathe. One of the staff shouted at her to get up and get to bed but she didn't move. Amy knew this was no game and for the first time in the eleven years she had been at the school she raised her voice to staff.
"Can't you see, she's ill, you idiot. Go and get some help!"
They didn't believe Amy and tried to pull her up but June didn't respond,. What did they know anyway, they were barely older than the children they 'cared' for. They were cheap inexperienced labour trying to survive their first time away from home. The only difference between them and Amy was that they had power. The nurse came and Amy was pushed aside as they tried to move June to sick bay. She died early the next day while Amy slept; Amy assumed that her heart had given up. On Sunday morning, June had just disappeared from Amy's life. Nobody explained why or how she had died. There was no funeral or memorial service to attend.
Amy sat for a while looking at the images on the screen all happy in their perfectly clean, sweet smelling world. She flicked off the television, pulled on her rubber gloves and walked into the bathroom. When the children came home from school, they found her on her knees scrubbing the toilet and crying her heart out.
The easiest thing would have been to forget and move on but Amy never forgot the last day she and June had spent together and what she had learnt about the nature of oppression. How it is sometimes perpetuated through the very systems set up to 'care' for disabled people.
She'd like to think that in the last 30 years, things have changed but she feared that if she scratched away at the surface... Disabled People are still segregated in institutions, staff are still under paid and under valued and lessons from the past are hardly ever learned.
There is hope though, many parents today are prepared to fight for inclusion and dare to dream that their disabled children will, one day, have the same opportunities as their non disabled peers. After all, women have equality now, don't they?