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Separation or Inclusion - the Debate Continues

This section continues the debate surrounding the separation or inclusion of disabled people in society, and describes some of the radical communities that have tried out different ways of living.

Charity flag for Alton Cripples Home & College : founded by Sir William Treloar in 1908c. 1920s.
Charity flag for Alton Cripples Home & College : founded by Sir William Treloar in 1908c. 1920s. © Wellcome Library London

In the history of people with disabilities, buildings have often been a focus for controversy. Some people viewed the asylums of the 19th century as places of safety for vulnerable people. Others at the time (and since) have seen them as places of incarceration designed to isolate people from society - "convenient places for inconvenient people", as one historian described them.

In the 18th century, public opinion on 'madhouses' diverged. Some people saw them as humane places where people suffering from mental illness might recover, whereas others thought they were abusive institutions where unwanted family members were locked away.

Today the debate about separation or inclusion goes on:

  • Do some disabled children need separate special schools, or should all children be part of mainstream education? 
  • Do people with disabilities need to use specially adapted buildings, such as day centres, or should all buildings be fully accessible and integrated with no need for separation? 
  • Should people with disabilities have the opportunity to work in sheltered work settings, or should it be the norm that everyone can work in mainstream open employment?

The special village community

During the 20th century, a very distinctive example of separate living emerged - the special village, where people with disabilities lived apart from the rest of society in a specially created community. These are sometimes known as 'intentional communities' because people only lived in them if they had chosen to, and expressed a considered wish to do so.

These communities see themselves as distinct from institutions such as asylums because they base themselves on family and community life. Inhabitants live simple lifestyles in a self-enclosed, self-supporting group. They belong to the tradition of the commune that has existed in English society since the radical religious sects of the mid-17th century and which included the Diggers.

Communes flourished again briefly during the 'hippy revolution' of the 1960s and 70s. Internationally, the Kibbutz in Israel and the Anabaptist communities of North America (Amish, Moravian and Hutterite), which originated in 17th century Germany, are examples of the separate, self-sustaining community.

Enham Alamein - a village for heroes

An early example of an English village community is Enham Alamein near Andover in Hampshire. Built in 1918 as the Enham Village Centre, it was the first specially created village for the care and support of disabled servicemen returning from the First World War. It was intended for men unable to return to their former trades because of their disabling injuries, and it focused on supporting them to regain independence and earn a living wage.

Crucially, servicemen were allowed to bring their families with them when they moved in, creating a genuine community in rural surroundings. The people who lived in the cluster of houses were known as 'settlers'. The village contained craft workshops and a poultry farm, as well as facilities for book and shoe repairs, furniture making and upholstery. With its own woodworking factory and market garden, it aimed for as high a level of economic independence as possible. Fulfilling industrial orders during the Second World War, including the manufacture of gliders, brought Enham to its highest level of self-sustainability.

After the Second World War, with a new generation of disabled war veterans to house, Enham was boosted by a financial gift expressing the 'gratitude of the Egyptian people' in commemoration of the battle of El Alamein. The village was renamed Enham Alamein and new purpose-built cottages and flats were added in the 1940s and 1950s. New industries were introduced, such as candle-making. Enham Alamein survives today as a community providing housing and work training for people with disabilities.

Camphill Communities - Seeking the 'Hidden and Eternal Soul'

The origin of the Camphill communities is extraordinary. The first Camphill School was founded in 1940 in Aberdeen by a group of German and Austrian Jewish refugees from Nazism. Led by the inspirational paediatrician Karl König, a Christian convert, they wanted to create a new form of 'healing environment' for the education and upbringing of children with special needs.

Following the teachings of the social reformer and educational philosopher Rudolf Steiner, they rejected the fashionable idea of the time that some children were ineducable. They envisaged a community where children with disabilities and (unpaid) staff would live together and share their lives to foster mutual help and understanding. They believed that 'in each human being', there was 'a hidden and eternal soul' that had to be reached.

Simplicity and naturalness

The movement flourished and the first English community was built at Botton Village in North Yorkshire in 1956. Today there are 22 communities in England for both children and adults. Influenced by the Moravian Christian communities of North America, 'villagers' (also known as 'Camphillers') live as 'co-workers' in non-hierarchical communities. Family-sized groups live together in small houses.

Mostly set in the countryside, the communities produce high-quality hand-crafted goods and foods and sustain themselves with their own produce. Some villages have gift shops and cafés. Their cooperative businesses include agriculture, horticulture, cheese-making, pottery and woodcraft. Key elements of the movement are simplicity, naturalness, tranquility and respect for the 'natural rhythms' of life.

Villagers come together in a central village hall to celebrate Christian festivals, changes in the seasons and the rhythms of the farming year. Buildings are simple and use as many natural materials as possible. Camphill is now an international movement, operating in 23 countries.

Social refugees

Towards the end of his life, Karl König recalled what it was that created this unlikely alliance of exiled European Jewish intellectuals and British children with disabilities. Why did they come together in their own special community outside mainstream society?

"The handicapped children, at that time, were in a similar position to ours. They were refugees from a society which did not want to accept them as part of their community. We were political, these children social, refugees."

Watch the BSL video on separation or inclusion

 

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