Time to ditch ‘them and us’ attitudes
Psychologist Dr Olive Webb has spent 50 years so far working with people with intellectual disabilities and says it’s time to ditch the ‘them and us’ way of thinking.
Her recently published memoir, From Behind Closed Doors, recalls the disabled people left to exist out of sight in institutions and who are still struggling to claim full citizenship.
Her book is an account of her career that started in 1969 at Sunnyside Hospital, where she was employed as an assistant clinical psychologist. What she saw there – people robbed of their individuality – convinced her of the need to do much better.
“The men slept in close quarters. In the morning they were herded out to the dressing area between the dorms. Their nightwear was removed, and they walked naked to the bathrooms on the other side of this huge building. After being showered en masse they were herded back to the dressing lobby where they were dressed in ill-fitting and ill-shapen hospital clothes. After breakfast they were herded into the Day Room where they did – nothing.”
Olive worked with others who wanted to improve the lives of individuals. But she describes being sacked after 25 years from Sunnyside in 1993 for refusing to cut her ties with community organisations, including IHC, which were seen as competitors under the new commercial model of Crown Health Enterprises.
She spent 10 years from 1993 working for IHC as a Consultant in Dual Diagnosis, Health and Disability, and Olive is now working in private practice, still supporting people with intellectual disabilities.
Olive wrote her book at the same time as hearings were being conducted by the Royal Commission of Inquiry into Abuse in Care. She made a submission to the Inquiry, and she also supported her friend Tony to give evidence. Tony had been placed in a children’s home and then in the Templeton Centre. He was physically and sexually abused and neglected at both places.
Olive talks about how life opened up for people who left the institutions. Two of those she mentions are Tony and Annette, a woman who sat in a villa that housed 50 people staring straight ahead, seeing nothing, but who, on moving into the community, discovered a love of ballet and life.
“Over the years Annette transformed from being ‘the one by the window – over there’ to being ‘Annette’, a person with likes and dislikes, with a will of her own, a person who enjoyed pleasure and who loved.”
But, Olive says, for all the progress, gaps still remain in service and support of individuals.
“We made a huge difference to Annette’s life. But whilst Tony is no longer institutionalised and is no longer sexually abused or beaten, he doesn’t choose where he lives nor who he lives with. He doesn’t spend his money on whatever he likes. He doesn’t hug anyone. He doesn’t have a girlfriend. He has little privacy and few secrets.”
Olive stresses the importance of sound practice by all psychologists. “Especially, we need to understand a person in light of their entire developmental history. I believe that until you know a person totally and thoroughly you shouldn’t be working with them. Often this means you have to play detective and take the time to get the information from many sources. You have to be able to see their world through their eyes and understand their unique experience of life.”
To purchase a copy of the book, contact Olive directly.
Caption: Dr Olive Webb at the Wellington launch of her memoir From Behind Closed Doors.