Where human rights begin

One of my favourite quotes is Eleanor Roosevelt’s comment about where human rights begin: “in small places, close to home”. It would easy to hear the humility in that, and miss the ambition carried by that humility: our rights to be human, not as an abstract principle to be debated by philosophers or politicians, but to be lived, by all of us, all of the time. When we go home, all of us live in those small places.

Roosevelt’s quote reminds me why institutions are so incompatible with human rights: traditionally they are big places, however many homely touches we may add. Even though the buildings may be smaller these days, and have more ‘homely’ touches to alleviate them, services remain places where too many people are let into an individual’s life. Bureaucracies have the same effect: bringing public discussion and impersonal forms into people’s most intimate moments. Meg Lewis, who found a route out of the impersonal space of a mental health ward into the ordinary family home of her Shared Lives carer, talked about the thick file of ‘everything embarrassing I’ve ever done’ which followed her around the hospital, before life became what it should be: “going on adventures and making friends”.

A couple of weeks ago, we saw the corrosive effect that letting strangers into people’s intimate lives can have, as a team of workers at a large service dehumanised and assaulted people with learning disabilities, feeding off their distress for their own amusement. This BBC exposé was almost a carbon copy of one approaching a decade earlier, and of institutions exposed as havens of abuse through decades before that. Every big scandal and big reform programme, with their senior leaders, big budgets, committees and frantic timescales has failed to stop this kind of abuse happening. They have seen a big problem, and tried to impose a sweeping solution, whether it was a service restructure, or new commitment that lots of organisations signed up to, or new regulations. Those programmes have been too huge to pay attention to the small places, close to home.

Meanwhile, Shared Lives carers and their families, like the hundreds who attended Blackpool Shared Lives’s 30th anniversary celebration last week, have been quietly helping people to live good lives, in ordinary family homes, as part of a supportive household. There are 10,000 Shared Lives carers now; there have been many thousands more during our 40 plus year history. It is their willingness to share their homes and personal lives with another individual that has been the success of the model, as people have achieved small things like learning to cook chicken curry, joining a local club, or travelling on the bus independently for the first time. Those small things make a huge difference.

Our challenge during Shared Lives week, which this year has a human rights theme, is to make a big deal out of those small changes. To have huge ambitions for Shared Lives whilst making sure it is offered to thousands more people. To convince the big bureaucracies of local government and the NHS that this human-sized, infinitely variable model is part of the solution to the huge problems facing our crisis-ridden public services. Rachel, a Shared Lives Plus Ambassador who works as part of the team to speak about Shared Lives and to help us improve it, said at the Blackpool event that she is “lots of different things at once”: she is not just someone to be supported through a service. Even a brilliant service will fail her unless she has the right to be a football fan, a brilliant knitter, a charity ambassador, a cook.

We need now more than ever to believe in the value of getting the small things right. Getting the small things wrong always means we get the big things wrong and ultimately it will thwart every ambition we have as individuals and for our public services. We are often asked how we are going to scale up Shared Lives. Shared Lives week is a time when everyone can help us to do that through spreading the word, celebrating your local Shared Lives carers and, for the first time, signing up as a supporter. But just as important as scaling things up is our willingness to scale things down. To think about the small places, where human rights begin.

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