The headline was ‘A Cause for Concern’; the cover date was November 1973; and I was the author. The article, spread over four pages of Evangelical Times, described an unsolved problem facing hundreds of Christian families.
The response of ET’s readers and others led directly to the founding of what has become one of the larger, but still little known, Christian organisations.
The article reported on a critical situation facing Christian families with a son or daughter who had a ‘mental handicap’, to use the terminology of the time.
Their daily anxiety was for the long-term future of their dependent sons and daughters. The main statutory provision was in state-run institutions, where hundreds of people with a learning disability were ‘warehoused’, some for most of their lives.
In the 1970s there were frequent reports of abuse and violence in the overcrowded wards of the ‘mental subnormality hospitals’ — yes, that was how they were described!
Most had chapels and part-time chaplains, but they were unable to provide the supportive environment for Christians with learning disabilities who might be admitted.
A clearly Christian alternative was needed which would offer small-scale homes staffed by people motivated by Christian values and expressing God’s love. Nothing of the sort existed in the UK, apart from one small home in Hampshire. Surely it was time for something to be done.
Families responded enthusiastically, at times almost pathetically, surprised and thrilled that their heartache was understood, that there might be some hope of help. Some wrote in to tell how it had been their daily prayer for years that someone would respond to this challenging need.
The need was bigger than we had anticipated. There were no state funds to draw upon and there was little professional advice or support forthcoming from social service departments.
The embryonic charity took the headline ‘A Cause for Concern’ for its working title and began to work with churches concerned for those members who had children with learning disabilities.
Six years from that first article, the first home was opened in Aberystwyth, with the help of Alfred Place Baptist Church. Even before it was operational, a second property had been bought in Reading, which opened three years later, in 1982, with the help of Carey Baptist Church.
Then there were others, in Kent, Deganwy, Bournemouth and near Shrewsbury. A Cause for Concern grew steadily to become a recognised and respected organisation in its field.
It was a time of rapid change in social care. Old institutions were closing down in favour of ‘care in the community’. By 2000, residential provision was taking place entirely in services provided by the private and voluntary sector, who tendered for services under block contracts offered by local authorities. It had become known as ‘the care industry’!
This major shift of people with a learning disability from institutions to ordinary housing led to another development within the charity. Churches found that people with a learning disability moving into their community were turning up to worship services, but those services were clearly not meeting their spiritual needs.
The majority of them cannot read, so our ‘book culture’ is for them an obstacle for learning and worship. They often struggle to understand abstract concepts and metaphors. Their concentration span is likely to be shorter.
Madeleine, my wife, who was determined to make the gospel more accessible to them, could find no resources which explained Bible truth for people with a learning disability, as distinct from just telling Bible stories.
Preparing her own material, she began a small Bible group specifically for people with a learning disability in the charity’s home in Reading. From the first meeting it was blessed beyond all our expectations.
Soon it was evident that some of the group were growing spiritually. Before long others were converted. Gradually the resources she developed were shared with others and new Bible groups were formed in churches around the country. This has become a major part of the ministry.
Nearly 40 years on from that first ET article, it feels as though we are in a different world. So much has changed in legislation relating to learning disabilities. And in 1997 the charity’s name was changed from ‘A Cause for Concern’ to ‘Prospects’, to express a positive approach to people with learning disabilities while retaining foundational Christian values.
Today Prospects is still working directly with families and churches to set up services in response to local needs. It is currently in partnership with such groups in York, Coventry, Bath and Cardiff.
The changing needs of people supported, changing family expectations, and the greater involvement of people with learning disabilities, requires Prospects to adapt its services to current needs and aspirations.
Prospects now operates in 70 locations around the United Kingdom, supporting some 350 people and employing 700 staff, most of whom are professionally qualified to work in its residential and day services.
And there are now nearly 200 church based partner-groups which meet at least monthly for Bible teaching and worship, with an attendance totalling around 2500 people with a learning disability, supported by a network of 1300 volunteers.
So is this a case of mission accomplished? By no means! It is true that public attitudes have changed for the better, and that includes churches. It is no longer unusual to see people with a learning disability on our streets, in the shops, pubs, restaurants and churches too.
There is evidence that this is more a matter of tolerance than inclusion. In the last five years there have been cases of people with a learning disability literally being harassed to death. In one case a mother responded to perpetual local hostility by killing herself and her learning-disabled daughter.
In May this year, Panorama exposed the brutality to which some people with a learning disability are exposed within the care system, leading to the closure of Winterbourne View Hospital in Bristol, where appalling treatment was meted out.
Small wonder then that Christian families continue to be deeply concerned to find long-term support for their dependent son or daughter, in an environment governed by biblical principles.
Against expectations, there are now more people in the UK with a learning disability than was the case 40 years ago — the working figure used by the Department of Health and Mencap, calculated according to World Health Organisation guidelines, is 1,500,000.
Sixty per cent of these receive care and support from their families. And, note this, 29,000 are living with parents who are over 70 years of age! It has been reasonably calculated that 3000-4000 people in these 29,000 families are practising Christians — more than ten times the size of Prospects’ current capacity.
In spite of the best efforts of Prospects, the spiritual needs of people with a learning disability in the UK are largely unmet. For most churches, they are not even on their radar. But they are there in every community, on every street, unreached with the good news of God’s love and grace.
Prospects and its church partners currently reach 2,500, but there are another 1,497,500 as yet unreached, waiting to hear.
It is perplexing then to learn that the gift income which supports this vital ministry has dropped significantly in recent months, so that the charity has been forced to reduce the team which spearheads its outreach.
In the residential sector of its work, Prospects also faces challenge from cuts in funding by local authorities as they grapple with the economic conditions the country faces.
The ultimate test is not whether you or I think that this is work that deserves support. Rather, it is whether those who are supported agree that what Prospects does is of benefit to them.
So let them speak — Darren says this about his experience of Prospects: ‘I’ve lived here for 7 years. I used to have 24 hours’ support — cooking, cleaning, shopping — now I need only 7 hours.
‘Mike and Robin my support workers put me in touch with a church. I became a Christian … It’s given me a lot of self-confidence. Now I do volunteer work at an old people’s home, washing up and serving teas’.
Sarah went to Sunday school and church but, ‘because of my learning disability I could not get to the Lord’. She later found a Prospects group: ‘It took a long time to find Jesus and when he came into my life I was so thrilled. Jesus means an awful lot to me’.
This vulnerable group still needs strong advocacy in the public and Christian arena. There is still a cause for concern, needing as much as ever the involvement, prayer, generosity and love of God’s people.
As that grows, there is hope of a future with better prospects in time and eternity for countless numbers of people with a learning disability. Prospects remains committed to spearheading such a response.
David C. Potter