Exploring learning disabilities: supporting belonging
Exploring learning disabilities: supporting belonging

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Exploring learning disabilities: supporting belonging

3 Life in the community

Bernadette Lee, or Bernie, was born in 1950, in Watford, Hertfordshire.

Unlike Mabel, Bernie spent only a short time in an institution (Cell Barnes). Instead she spent most of her life living with her family, and then later in a residential home, before finally moving into her own flat when she was 57. This was despite the fact that, when Bernie was born, there was very little support for people with learning disabilities who did not live in institutions.

Activity 5 Bernie's early life

Timing: Allow about 10 minutes

Watch Video 6 in which Phil, Bernie’s older brother, talks about his sister’s early life, then answer the questions that follow.

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Transcript: Video 6

PHIL
Bernadette was born on the 3rd of September, 1950. That was in Watford. I was just over two at that stage, so my memories of that period are a bit scamp, but yeah, two year's difference between us.
I believe my mum went back to the maternity hospital for just a checkup with Bernadette. And she was told that Bernadette was Mongoloid because that was the reference then. And that was quite a shock. And there was no support at that time. So she was told just go home, but put Bernadette in a home, get on with your life, and think no more about it.
So she left the hospital in the total daze and wandered around the town not knowing what to do, nearly walked into the road. And by some miracle, her sister found her and took charge of her, took her home. But that was it. That was how she was told-- and the total lack of support at that time.
Her brothers and sisters were very supportive and were all through their lives of Bernie. And Bernie was just one of the family. Bernadette ended up in Cell Barnes for a period. Now Cell Barnes was a home for Down syndrome and others with learning difficulties. Mum had just had my brother, and I think it was trying to cope with that that they-- it wasn't quite like respite care. I think Bernadette went in to Cell Barnes. And she was there for about eight weeks.
We used to visit once a week, always seemed to be Sunday afternoon. It always seemed to be beautiful weather. The Cell Barnes had lovely grounds, like Parkland. And we used to walk, and have a picnic, or sit in the grass and play all together. And so that was that image, but that contrasted then with when we had to leave.
I have the image of Bernadette being held by a nurse, and just arms outstretched, wanted to come with us. And you see there 60-odd-years on, that's still quite a traumatic memory. I think we coped with that for about eight weeks. And Dad said no, can't deal with that. That's no life for Bernadette, it's no life for us. And so Bernadette came home. And then the next issue was to face the issue of education.
End transcript: Video 6
Video 6
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  1. How did Bernie and Phil’s mum learn that her daughter had Downs Syndrome?
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Answer

She was told when her daughter had a check-up that she was ‘mongoloid’.

  1. How did that affect her, according to Phil?
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Answer

She appears to have been shocked, so shocked that she almost walked into the road until her sister found her.

  1. Why did Bernie end up in Cell Barnes?
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Answer

It’s not absolutely clear why Bernie went into Cell Barnes, but Phil, only a young child himself at the time, believed it was because another child had been born and his mother was struggling to manage.

  1. Why was this a traumatic memory for Phil?
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Answer

Phil’s memory is of his little sister waving her arms to ask to go home with the family after visits. Even 60 years later, this memory brings tears to his eyes.

Bernie’s experiences were not unusual in the 1950s. Many families who had children with learning disabilities at this time were told that the best thing they could do was put the child in a home, forget about them and try for another child. There seemed to be no efforts to offer practical support or advice and families were just left alone to manage if they decided to care for their child in the family home. If they could not manage, then an institutional place was the only option.

Eventually things did get better, but only slowly. You will continue the story by building on the timeline from the late twentieth century to early twenty-first century.

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