Today (Friday 2 April) the UN marks World Autism Awareness Day, just a couple of weeks after World Down Syndrome Day, which took place on Sunday 21 March.
Whilst the increasing frequency of days dedicated to awareness of this or that is often met with some cynicism, or indifference, I welcome the growing global recognition that people with Down syndrome, autism spectrum disorders, and other lifelong conditions and disabilities, are people of validity and importance, deserving of the same happiness, enjoyment and freedoms as the rest of us.
It’s easy to mark a single day, of course, and whilst fundraising and visibility efforts are always welcome, what’s just as important is a focus on the daily lives of people with disabilities – the accumulation of days which make up a life well lived. And the daily lives of disabled people have changed significantly over recent decades.
It used to be the case that a child born with Down syndrome, or severe autism, would be cared for by their families, who sometimes struggled to cope; if this was no longer possible, for example upon reaching adulthood, then the person could expect to be housed in a long-stay NHS hospital or remote, often Victorian-era institution.
These institutions were usually located many miles away from family and friends, in remote areas, and offered little in the way of stimulation, education, or support to enable people to reach their full potential and live the sort of meaningful life which all humans crave.
Thankfully, things have changed. Since the 1980s successive governments have closed down remote long stay institutions and enacted policies which enable adults with lifelong disabilities to live within their own communities, with appropriate professional care and support.
All the available clinical evidence demonstrates that living as independently as possible, with support, results in far better mental, physical and social outcomes for people, than life in an institution. Supported housing, as it is known, has changed the lives of more than 175,000 individuals in the UK.
The system is under some pressure, however. Demand for supported housing is growing and is expected to continue to do so, as medical advances lead to better rates of premature birth survival and longer life spans, and as mental health disorders are becoming more prevalent, and more accurately diagnosed.
The UK population has grown by 9 million since 1980; the stock of social housing as fallen by 2.5 million over the same period. It is small wonder that, in most parts of the country, demand for supported housing outstrips supply.
Civitas Social Housing, of which I am chief executive officer, is part of the solution: we invest to bring specialist supported housing and associated healthcare facilities onto the market for local authorities to offer as long-term homes to adults with lifelong disabilities, mental health needs, or those facing significant life challenges such as homelessness or domestic violence.
I firmly believe that adequate provision of specialist supported housing for everyone who needs it requires both the private and public sectors to come together
Through long-term partnerships with care providers and housing associations, we provide homes for life which enable our residents to live full lives according to their capabilities.
A study by The Good Economy, carried out last year, sought to qualify and quantify the impact of our work in terms of the health and wellbeing of tenants, the reduced isolation, improved relationships and enhanced opportunity for employment and attaining qualifications.
The study concluded that, taking all these things into account, the Civitas portfolio, in the business year 2019/2020, delivered cost savings of £60m for the public purse and achieved £55m of additional social impact value as a result of the enhanced outcomes for tenants.
As one of our residents, Victoria, told us: ‘[My] flat is perfect. I’m happier than I’ve been in a very long time. I’ve been in and out of hospital and lived in hostels….I really appreciate having my own place.’
As someone who spent their working career prior to Civitas entirely in the public sector, leading large housing associations, I firmly believe that adequate provision of specialist supported housing for everyone who needs it requires both the private and public sectors to come together in creative and collaborative ways to make properties available.
I believe that the public and private sectors have different but equally useful skillsets and perspectives to bring to the game and that, when working productively together, the best outcomes can be achieved.
Gandhi is supposed to have said that the true measure of any society can be found in how it treats its most vulnerable members. World Down Syndrome Day and World Autism Awareness Day demonstrate that our society’s attitude towards disabled people has changed from one of ignorance to one of celebration and respect.
But the true proof of that respect will lie in our commitment, not only to allow disabled people to be visible for one day, but also allow them to live fulfilling lives every day.