Stephen's story

It is hard to imagine a community that would have given Stephen a better life than the one he has enjoyed as a member of the Ravenswood community

When our son Stephen was born in 1968 and proved to have Down syndrome his mother and I were aghast. We looked around for advice and were told to consult a local expert on this condition. He kindly saw us one evening when his day’s work was done. After talking for some time he gave us his advice: We should put Stephen in an institution and forget he had ever existed. We thanked him and left. Without a word spoken we knew we were of one mind: we would not do that. Stephen was our son. We set out to bring him up at home.

When Stephen was about six, in the early seventies, we took him with us to visit Ravenswood and see what it had to offer, should we ever feel we needed it. We met the Head of Ravenswood, a man who had written a book called “No Child is Ineducable”. As we were talking to him, Stephen lay down on the floor and tried to crawl under the heavy desk. Anne, his mother, apologised for him but Dr Segal said it was a good sign: he was curious, he would learn.

In 1977, when Stephen was 9 years old, the family split up and went to America. At that time Down syndrome sufferers were denied visas by the United States so Stephen had to stay here, and Ravenswood agreed to take him for that year. After a year I returned to England but his mother and siblings stayed in America.

Stephen is now 53, so he has spent 44 years, most of a life-time, at the Village. In all this long time Ravenswood has always been run by staff I found to be motivated by feelings of friendship towards and responsibility for the residents, and concerned to ensure their welfare, and to improve the way they did that to better meet their needs.

It was a special day for Stephen when he was given the duty of distributing mail around the Village and on his first day he was up at 5 a.m. to be ready on time.

Stephen arrived at Ravenswood at a time when there was increasing emphasis on education and breadth of experience. This did not exclude work for those who were capable of it and enjoyed it. Later, the emphasis on increasing residents’ experiences led to their inclusion in foreign holidays, including fundraising cycling trips, and to Ravenswood developing a wide range of internal and external courses and options, such as bowling, swimming, theatre, gardening, cooking and art.

When Stephen originally found himself in the unfamiliar environment and among the unfamiliar staff of Ravenswood he adapted to the challenge this presented by extreme caution. When asked a question he sought to understand what answer was wanted and to give that answer. He did not understand how to formulate his needs and interests and make requests that would lead to their satisfaction.

He developed a careful avoidance of outright opposition to a figure of authority. Even now, if he is visiting me and I suggest we go for a walk, but he would rather continue watching television, he will not say “No”. He is more likely to walk slowly up to the window, stare outside for a time with a frown on his face, then say, lugubriously, “I think it is going to rain”.

His talent for music was encouraged, and for years he has functioned as a disc jockey for the Village

As time passed, the families of residents organised together and took a greater part in determining the direction of the Village, and its culture changed. Ravenswood picked up on the tendency to compliance among powerless residents, and at the annual meetings held by each chalet with individual residents and their parents or siblings to determine what courses and activities they would pursue in the coming year it was inspiring to see how staff devoted themselves patiently to encouraging the resident to formulate his or her own needs. Stephen was bewildered by this at first, but learned to think about this in advance, and to make considered requests and choices at the meetings, and over time became remarkably more self-confident and open. For that I am grateful to the staff of Ravenswood.

His talent for music was encouraged, and for years he has functioned as a disc jockey for the Village, carefully choosing and presenting a weekly program of songs and music at a Disco for the residents, and sometimes officiating at the homes of staff. He has also enjoyed Special Olympics contests, specialising in the shot put.

One virtue of the structure of Ravenswood and the culture it has led to is the scope for independent action and decision-making.

If Stephen feels restless he can go for a walk, in the grounds and among the lawns and trees of Ravenswood, of his own volition, when he wishes to, in safety. He does not need permission or to be accompanied by a member of staff. He will meet familiar faces, he can visit other chalets, he can make friends outside his own small group. He can walk down to some nearby shops and buy a diet coke or, if he wishes, spend the morning helping the staff at The Green prepare their lunch.

At one time he got interested in and frequently visited a chalet which held more severely affected children who did not talk. He visited on Fridays when the Rabbi, if he could, conducted a service for them, which Stephen watched attentively. On one occasion the Rabbi was held up and did not arrive at the usual time. The residents waited, Stephen waited, he realised that the Rabbi might not come, he walked to the head of the table, drew on a prayer shawl and mumbled his way through a simulation of the service. The residents were satisfied, and they relaxed.

From the residents’ point of view they were immersed in a larger community, the Ravenswood community, which had intervened to help them with a problem. From Stephen’s point of view the residents were part of his community for whom he had been able to do something positive, which he was pleased to do.

Stephen has formed close friendships with several members of staff. This has led them to invite him to dinners at their homes, or to run the disco at a wedding party, or to come and see their new baby. He is a great enthusiast for “Dr Who”: he has never lost his pleasure in the music at the onset of the programme or the sight of Daleks crying “exterminate”. On one occasion the staff at his chalet organised, on their own initiative and at their own expense, a trip to London to allow him to visit the Dr Who Museum.

This history of constant benevolent attention from the staff, wide experience, and personality growth that Stephen has enjoyed illustrates the exceptional quality of the care that Ravenswood has given its residents, and its repeated improvements in that care, over the 44 years that Stephen has lived there. It is hard to imagine a community that would have given Stephen a better life than the one he has enjoyed as a member of the Ravenswood community.

Michel (Stephen's father),

Jessica and Deborah (Stephen's sisters)

Daniel (Stephen's brother)

Ravenswood Village is currently under consultation with the possibility of closure. Please show your support for our families and friends to keep their home by signing the petition below. These are vulnerable people who deserve to continue to live where they feel happy, loved and safe.

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