by Ian Kirkwood
THE black cloud hanging over the future of the Stockton Centre gave an added poignancy to Saturday’s annual Stockton welfare association fete.
It also presented an opportunity for members of the public unfamiliar with the centre and its surroundings to come and have a look, which is what I did.
On one hand, everything was pretty much as I expected it to be, both from descriptions that people had given me and from my personal experiences on institutional grounds, visiting a friend and workmate who had succumbed to psychosis and who was living at Gladesville Mental Hospital, as it was at the time, in Sydney.
On the other hand, it was somewhat different from the Stockton Centre that various state government figures had described to me since the Newcastle Herald first reported the threat to its future – part of a full privatisation of disability care services in NSW that is only now starting to come to light as part of the National Disability Insurance Scheme.
As far as these descriptions were concerned, Stockton was an “institution” with aged and substandard buildings, isolated and unsuitable to providing the sorts of disability services expected in the 21st century.
Well, that’s not the impression I got, and it’s not the place that a stream of families described to me over the four hours I was there.
I saw old buildings, certainly, some of them noteworthy from a heritage point of view, but there was nothing substandard that I could see about the accommodation or the services.
I am told that all but a handful of the 400 or so people still living at Stockton have their own bedrooms, and with more than 1000 staff on site, there would appear to be no questions about the supervision or the care.
Time and time again, people pointed to the beautiful, serene, sprawling grounds around us, and said “this is their community”. Virtually everything the residents needed, including a dental service, was on the campus, and the welfare association has raised more than a million dollars in recent decades alone to supplement the government purse.
People are particularly proud of the “sensory” garden and building, which has different installations in each room to stimulate the senses of more seriously disabled residents.
Yes, there were a few cottages that looked like 1950s housing commission cottages, but that is hardly surprising given the public works department would have built them both.
Inquiries revealed that the newest units there are less than a decade old yet they, too, are apparently unable to meet the latest disability specifications.
More than one person said, however, that if those units didn’t meet the standards, then there wouldn’t be many community homes that did.
I am not an expert. I realise that. But I can see when people are proud of what has been done at a place like Stockton, and I understand why they fear the worst, regardless of politicians and “experts” telling them it’s for the best.
Integrating people in the community is one thing.
But the modern Australian urban community is a very unforgiving place.
Stockton, like Tomaree at Port Stephens and Kanangra at Morisset, actually functions as an alternative community.
It’s not about shutting people away from society so that the rest of us don’t have to look at them or deal with them.
It’s about protecting our most vulnerable people – none of whom are capable of functioning without a great deal of help – in beautiful and safe settings.
The politicians say the NDIS is about providing choice for people with disability and their carers.
But the one choice denied the Stockton families is to stay where they are, under government care. So to them, the choice being offered is no choice at all.