’s 50th Anniversary Essay, Research Paper
A very telling taleThe first history of disability charity Scope, then known as the Spastics Society, was compiled by broadcaster Richard Dimbleby. The latest one, published this week, has a foreword by Dimbleby’s son, Jonathan, but is written by Chris Davies, a journalist who has cerebral palsy. It is a measure of the transformation undergone by Scope that Davies should have been commissioned to put together the book to mark the charity’s 50th anniversary. And although it is described as a “personal history”, what is striking about the book is the licence that Davies has been allowed. “Not even its severest critics would claim that Scope has done more harm than good,” the author writes. “But it must be said that it has done some harmful things, even though the harm is only clear in retrospect.” Several of the disabled people interviewed in the book are even more outspoken. “As far as I am concerned, Scope are still very disabling,” says Alison John, who has featured in a number of BBC documentaries about her life. “Staff are still very much working from the medical perception of what this disability is; they aren’t aware that it is now a social issue rather than a medical issue. Disabled people within Scope have said they are very disempowered, very much passive in their roles, aren’t able to really have their needs met.” It is a far cry from the sanitised, self-congratulatory tone of all too many official histories of charities. Scope sees the book, Changing Society, as more of an oral history project than what it calls a “conventional corporate history”. Davies’s interviews with 17 key figures, both non-disabled founders and leaders of the charity and people with cerebral palsy, have been placed with the British Library’s national sound archive as part of its oral history collection. The National Spastics Society, as it was then called, was formally inaugurated at a meeting in January 1952, after a group of parents of children with cerebral palsy got together to discuss ways of improving services for youngsters with the disability. The charity grew quickly, particularly after the Daily Mirror newspaper carried a letter from the founders – attracting more than 300 responses – and then focused on the issue over six days in a cartoon strip, Ruggles, which was based on a fictitious suburban couple interested in social questions. The Daily Mirror has funded the printing of the new book in recognition of its relationship with the charity. Davies’s mother, Hilda, was one of those attending that first meeting in 1952. He was six at the time and he says he dimly remembers travelling from Liverpool and sleeping in the office of Ian Dawson-Shepherd, the charity’s first chairman anddriving force. Among other early leaders was Bill Hargreaves, who had cerebral palsy and was co-opted on to the charity’s ruling council in that first year, remaining deeply involved in the organisation until his death two years ago. While welcoming the fact that Scope’s council now has a majority of people with cerebral palsy, Davies acknowledges that it was “appropriate, necessary and right” that parents originated the charity. He also pays tribute to the qualities of non-disabled leaders – including the “new radicalism” of Tim Yeo, director from 1980 to 1983, who went on to become a Conservative MP and minister. Radical as he may have been, Yeo is none the less among those who think the charity made a mistake when, in 1994, it chose the name Scope to replace its outdated “spastic” label. Davies himself considers the new name “far from perfect” because it is not self-explanatory. More arrestingly, Rosamund Browne, who has cerebral palsy and was one of the author’s interviewees, is strident in her defence of the old terminology. “I can’t see anything wrong with the word ’spastic’,” she says. “It’s a wonderful conversation opener. I think ‘cerebral palsy’ is a dreadful expression. It reminds me of the Bible and begging.” Others may not share her view, but even some of Scope’s most radical disabled activists see some merit in the old, paternalistic approach of the charity. Glynn Vernon says the residential education he received from the charity, while contrary to everything he now believes, was “damn good” and “made me into the arrogant bastard I am”. However, Vernon looks forward to further reform, saying: “I think within 10 years we’ll have a disabled chair and I think, after that, we’ll never have an able-bodied chair again. As for a disabled chief executive, that will come as well. I wouldn’t like to put a timescale on it, but it will come.” · Changing Society is available at ?8.80 inc. p&p from the Library and Information Unit, Scope, 6 Market Road, London, N7 9PW (020-7619 7341).