There’s a part of our welfare system that is almost invisible, at least as far as the literature is concerned: the day centre. Day centres are the poor relation of welfare, given little regard and seen by many as a relic of the old days of institutional care. They are deeply unfashionable. In some areas they’re seen as ripe for abolition. And yet, among the people who rely on day centres, there is still strong support for them. Those people, however, rarely have any choice about whether the centre stays or goes. When is comes to choice and control, choosing to keep the local day centre open (when the financial pressure is for closure) is so outside the prevailing orthodoxy that it’s usually ignored.
Over the last year I’ve been helping out a day centre for people with learning disabilities. I had thought that I was as progressive as the next person and on board with the ideology behind personal budgets. But I’ve come to like and approve of a lot of what goes on at the centre. Am I being seduced by the reassuring presence of a reliable bricks and mortar service? I’ve tried to work out why it is that many of the people who attend get such a positive experience of the service. Here are a few thoughts.
Peer groups are important to us all. People who come to the centre find acceptance, friendship, status and respect in the peer groups they become part of. They don’t have to work hard to be equal. They find their idiosyncrasies are recognised as part of who they are, not something to be wary of. People can ‘relax in their own identity’ without the concerns about being different or about being the odd-one-out in the company of others.
I was surprised to find something not too dissimilar when recently I got to know the local cancer services quite well. People receiving chemotherapy and radiotherapy in the hospital can relax in each other’s company. They don’t have to worry about being exposed in public as an ‘ill person’. The ‘ill person’ or ‘recovering person’ is in a special category in society – someone deserving of sympathy; but it’s an awkward category to deal with and creates problems in social relationships. When you’re with other ‘ill people’ the awkwardness disappears.
In peer groups people can identify closely with the experience of the other members. At the day centre there is consolation in knowing that there is a shared experience of disability but that is not the only benefit. Peer groups build histories made up of shared understandings. We joke more when we have done funny things together and appreciate the humour of the group. We learn together what the needs and tolerances of each member are. We have shared experiences that mark the togetherness of the group and which build a concern for one another. We find people we can trust and people on whom we can model ourselves. All these can be seen in abundance at the day centre.
Is this an argument for segregation? Not at all. No one I have come across at the day centre gives the impression that they want to be separated from everyday life; quite the reverse. There are no signs that people elevate their day centre experience above the time they spend with non-disabled friends and families. But the social lives people have at the day centre have significant value for the people who attend.
Like all services, there is good and bad. The centre I’ve observed has, for example, a good record on supporting choice and on getting people out and using community facilities. Before we turn out the lights in our day centres we should observe carefully what happens in the lives of the people who attend and ask whether the alternatives we propose meet the same range of human needs.