We in L’Arche Kent zoomed our All Souls’ Remembrance Service. With my internet connection on the blink, I was not present for it all, but the stories I heard of people I had known and lived with, as well as those who had joined the community when I was less involved, were moving.
I was moved to smiles and laughter, but after my connection declined one last time, I was left feeling outraged but not with my net provider. My connection was restored by the evening and a new hub is on its way. No, it was the way so many of my friends had been treated before I met them.
Many people born with epilepsy or a learning disability were, before and after the Second World War, locked away in rural hospitals or asylums, sometimes housing 1,000 or more. Drugs to control seizures were not available, so people were herded away from society, ‘it’s better for them’, their parent were told.
Time and again this morning we heard how people had blossomed on leaving ‘care’. I had seen and worked in such places and saw how dehumanising they were. Not even personal clothing, but heavy duty corduroy trousers and jackets, twill denim shirts, navy blue jumpers, all rough from being washed on the highest setting in industrial machines. Ablutions in troughs with cold water. Many by then on modern drugs, as much to control behaviour as seizures.
One young man with Downs turned out to be a gifted, self-taught-by-ear pianist, learning on a ward instrument. He was used to raise charitable funds but remained on the ward. An elderly man had disappeared for three days, a cause of panic as the countryside was searched in vain. He had been sitting in front of a foxes’ lair, watching the cubs at play; the animals accepted his presence. I was not the only member of staff who wondered why he was in the asylum.
Neither of these men joined L’Arche Kent, but the men and women who came brought their own gifts that had been buried for 20, 30, or more years. Artistic talent, gardening, hard work, sense of humour, dress sense, loyalty, persistence, sensitivity, loving care, faith.
L’Arche and other organisations allow people with disabilities to flourish within society and within the church – I won’t say churches, distinctions between us blur into the background with L’Arche. But if an unborn baby is found to have Downs Syndrome, doctors will recommend abortion and the same for any other perceived disability. How many people are dismissed as not quite human in 2020? Migrants for a start? What do we do about it?