Residential Living in the 21st Century

Written by Michelle La Fontaine.Copyright 1999.

As this goes to print, it will only be a matter of days before the beginning of the new millennium. The excitement builds but…to those living in residential accommodation it does not really make much difference that the clock ticks over to the year 2000. Besides, there are cultures in the world which have no concept of our Western beliefs based on the Gregorian calendar and still others that believe the new millennium has already begun.

So, now I find myself inhabiting a structural arrangement of the sort referred to above, I wonder about the progress such establishments have made over the last century and what sort of changes there should be in the future. With all the hype associated with this particular New Year, one almost expects some miracle to occur overnight. That’d be nice. In this kind of living environment, it is doubtful. For change to occur, a major cultural shift at a universal level needs to occur, a major policy change at the national political level needs to occur, and a major attitude change must occur by the general public and at the administrative level of residential accommodation. There is an almighty amount of major change in there that is required.

I think about the research I have done that looks at the history of institutions for people called disabled. A shiver goes through me. For although I have been told that this establishment is not an institution, it certainly has many of the hallmarks associated with such. The dominant characteristic of this situation is that it is based on a medical model of care, that is to say medical model of management. There is care involved but it is predicated on efficiency and economy, according to the budgetary restrictions and regulations imposed.

This medical model assigns the carers in the institutions with a level of power that I believe is immoral. In my life on the outside, I run my life. I have control of my own affairs. I manage my own support. I am totally responsible for my choices. I have privacy, space and dignity. This abruptly changes when I enter the institutional zone. Suddenly, one becomes public property, a legal entity, a number in the system, an outcome of effective administrative time tabling all for allegedly plausible reasons – for one’s own protection. I cannot help but disagree – these measures are for the protection of the system itself, to try and contrive order out of completely chaotic situations. And the system itself was created by the survival instinct of peoples and cultures that desire continuant (that is longevity in), controlled and stagnant lives. We who have defined severe medical conditions have been subjectified as being anarchic – our lives go completely against the grain of the worldview of the need for normality and biological endurance.

My claim to continuance, control and stagnancy in life never really got off the ground, at least not in the socially accepted sense of being (though I have often been called courageous, brave and ever so able to cope). My body fits into the social representation of biological anarchy, and for that, I find myself in this peculiar place more than is personally coveted because community support is not always efficient in its ability to provide the support my body demands. Ironically, it was the perceived inability of people with a whole range of physical, mental and emotional conditions to be efficient in the factory systems created by the advent of the industrial revolution in the late 18th Century that isolated them in early asylums.

In these places, the complete antithesis of a home, one has very little, often no control of the pace or quality of one’s existence. The need for rational organisation overrides personal desires that over time can drive one into terrible frustration. It is almost as though one has medical needs, and nothing else. Of course, that is the essence of the medical model.

This loss of control manifests in other ways too. For instance, one is confronted with bodily management techniques that are undertaken in one’s ‘best interests’. This means that despite your own intelligence and right to make choices, decision-making and risk-taking can be taken away. When you are completely physically dependent on others and cannot speak on top of that, it is extremely difficult to get past this. Your personal power is eradicated.

This is a complex matter as it touches on the legal issue of duty of care. However, this completely discounts individual liberty and it has crossed my mind that it is in fact a form of entrapment, which can be physical or emotional. This is something that needs exploration in the new century, particularly if this model of care is to continue. Those who are deemed to have conditions of the mind (which is not the specialty of this establishment although sometimes I wonder if ‘going insane’ in the colloquial sense might not be a bad idea) are vulnerable to the extreme if they are determined to be “not of sound mind”. People are still locked up [for their own good], as they frequently were in what should be known as the primitive forms of institutions, when they are perceived as a “danger to themselves or others”. These are not people who have committed heinous crimes.

Society generally has neglected an analysis of the conceptual framework of institutions constructed for the housing of people with various medically defined conditions that are purportedly too hard to deal with in the mainstream community by the provision of appropriate, necessary support wherever people choose to live. Instead, society appears to simply accept these places as necessary though they are a product of a belief system that had its roots 200 years ago. Why? Because it is what people know and it is easier to conform than confront the status quo.

The challenge for the new millennium, whenever society constructs that to be, is to accept all forms of human life as viable forms of life and to see each person as a part of the whole of humanity. In so doing, we need to question the place, relevance and adequacy of residential facilities in the so-called modern, progressive age in which we live. “All the world is a stage,” Shakespeare wrote. It is a shame we do not all have the chance to play our role to the fullest, in whatever capacity that may be.