Radical Visions Podcast: Episode 4

Today - John's story!


My parents were from the East End of Glasgow; one from Haghill the other from Carntyne. They married in 1950, bought a house in Rutherglen, and I was born in there in 1953. We quickly moved up to East Kilbride: “the original New Town!” (the first and obviously the best!) and my earliest memories are from there. I have a wee sister who is 4 and a half years younger than me.

The church was always really important, right from my earliest memories. My parents were involved in the local Baptist Church so I’m something of a “John the Baptist”. That was, and still is, a very positive thing in my life, and really inspirational. I remember being about 12, and going in the car to church and thinking “oh I'm really excited to go here”. I think that was because the Minister, a guy called Peter Barber, was very stimulating and nourishing, intellectually emotionally and spiritually. My parents were really “salt of the earth” type people. They both left school at 14 but were part of the first generation after the war to really benefit from the NHS changes and the welfare state coming in. There was a whole kind of optimism after the war that I think that they were part of. I inherited quite a lot from them in terms of politics. My dad would never have said “I am a socialist” but he knew what he wasn't politically. He was one of 7 kids growing up in the 20s and 30s and had seen the conditions that people lived in. He had a strong sense of justice and injustice. I think both my parents were quite different from their own parents who were maybe a bit more traditional in their thinking about politics and power. So I took a lot from them.

I went through school into university and didn’t know what I wanted to be, at all, and I ended up doing an English literature degree, partly because I was excited at the thought of 4 years of reading, and partly because I was never any good at science. I never had any intention of being an English teacher, though. As I got closer to the end of my degree I started thinking, “well I need to think of something”. I’d met some people through the church and elsewhere who were social workers and who had quite impressed me. And I remember having a bit of an epiphany moment at one point in the university library, thinking “maybe that's what I'm supposed to do, I'm going to go into social work!”.

So I became a Trainee Social Worker with Glasgow Corporation 1974, the final year before it became Strathclyde Regional Council. They paid for my Social Work qualification training at Edinburgh University, and the deal was that I had to go back and work for them, which I did. That was a quite a traumatic experience, being thrown right in the deep end with a huge workload as a newly qualified generic social worker. I remember the Senior Social Worker coming in with a big pile of cases (65 in total!), right up to his chin and plopping them down on my desk on my very first day in the office. These were mostly cases of people on probation or with some relationship to the Children's Hearing system. I got out of Glasgow again fairly quickly; I’d had a really good placement as a student in Galashiels with a good Senior (Bill Calder) and he was quite keen for me to come back so I moved down there to work, initially as a generic social worker again.

My very first experience of people with a learning disability was during my trainee year. I’d been sent you out on a placement to, what was described as a day centre for the “mentally handicapped”. I’d been right through my family life, school - primary and school - and undergraduate life never really having encountered a person with a disability and certainly not a person with a learning disability, so I was thinking, “mentally handicapped, what’s that?” I was that na├»ve, and the connotations weren’t positive so I really wasn’t sure what I was going to encounter. I remember coming out at the end of the first day thinking, you know, “I've met some of the nicest people I will ever meet in my entire life,” and was kind of hooked from that point on. I couldn’t believe it. After lunch the adult men and women in this day centre were being told to put their arms on the table, their heads on their arms, and to “have a wee snooze”. It was a kind of a primary school, or even nursery school mentality.

After a while of working in Galashiels a vacancy arose for the Social Work position in the Community Learning Disability Team for the whole of the Borders, which at that time was located within Dingleton Hospital, a well-known psychiatric hospital with a good reputation for its “therapeutic community” approach. There was one ward for people with learning disabilities and then three Community Psychiatric Teams plus ours (the Learning Disability Team). It was a really good experience working there for the next few years, working alongside community murses, psychiatrists, psychologists, and really working as a team because of the ethos of that place wasn't hierarchical, even if we did have a few run-ins with each other! Every day anyone who worked there was invited to the Community Council at 8.30am and again at 2pm; a completely different way of running things.

There wasn't an institution as such nearby; the nearest institutions were Gogarburn and places like St Joseph's. People would sometimes get sent away there and, as I mentioned, there was this ward in Dingleton for about 12 people, but you were really working with people who lived in their own community. Around that time I got exposed to Program Analysis of Service Systems (PASS) which was written by Wolf Wolfensberger and was being used to educate people to thinking differently about what services were and and should be about, and how people should be valued in the face of systematic devaluation in society. So that was quite a Eureka moment for me and I came back from the course with a kind of altered head around what I was doing and what I should be doing. I later became a PASS trainer after coming into contact with some of the leaders of the program. That developed my confidence as a facilitator and a presenter, as did my work with my colleague Denis Rowley, who encouraged me to take more of a leadership role by practicing speaking, presenting, and talking about how we might do things differently. That was all very helpful as I had been quite self-conscious, much more than I am now.

In the middle of all of this I’d got engaged and married to my wife, Moira, who I’d known since childhood. We were married in 1981 and had our daughter Emma in 1988. That same year we moved up to Stonehaven when I took up a new role as the first employee, and Chief Exec, of Partnership Housing in Aberdeen (now known as Inspire). Partnership Housing had been set up to help move people out of institutions (particularly Ladysbridge Hospital in Banff and Woodlands in Aberdeen) and into their own homes. The council would buy houses and lease them to our organisation on an advantageous long-term lease. So I spent a lot of time going around Aberdeen looking at really expensive houses. Aberdeen was in the midst of an oil boom and people were largely leaving the institutions in groups to go into really nice houses with very high ceilings and lots of space, but still group living with no notion of individualised funding. I was there from 1988 until 1992, at which point the interest rates for mortgages were going through the roof. We could barely afford to live in Stonehaven any more. Around that time I noticed an advertisement for the Principal Officer (Learning Disability) for Strathclyde. I applied for the role, not really thinking I’d be successful, but I was.

We moved back down to Glasgow and that it was a complete culture shock going into that environment. Strathclyde at that point was a huge geographical area, home to about half the population of Scotland, serviced by four different Health Boards and a whole infrastructure of local authority social work offices. I did what I could in that period; we had big review of Day Services and I was really pleased with that in terms of its content but getting the changes implemented into Day Services was really hard.

Then there was a political move to wind up Regional Authorities, which meant that my job changed again and I was sent out to Lennox Castle to head up the resettlement project for the people leaving there. That wasn't something I had particularly sought out; I wasn’t unhappy about it but I certainly had no idea what I was taking on. Gina Hagan (who I would go on to work with in the future) was already there; she'd been part of the team that I had at headquarters but had gone off earlier to head up the Commissioning Team.

There was a lot of resistance to Lennox Castle being closed down. The staff were particularly resistant and along with their local MP got a story into the Daily Recrd alleging that the whole process could be boiled down to “selling the sick”. The headline was “Sick for Sale!” and it was a really traumatic day when that came out. One of the things that helped at that point was actually the Wolfensberger stuff I talked about earlier. Through PASS I’d learned that there was systemic discrimination going on against people, and so when it manifested itself in that way I could kind of understand it and get it into some kind of perspective as a result.

During that time I was able to work with Simon [Duffy] to get Inclusion Glasgow off the ground as a possible service provider for the people moving out of Lennox Castle. It was great for me to be associated with an organisation like that, which was at the more kind of radical end of things; the cutting edge! I knew by then that we didn't just have to churn out group homes; if we had more time and more money we could do something differently so it was heartening, professionally, for me to be able to see that happen.