The story of a life – reflecting on 45 years of change

Steve Thomas is currently our National Union Convenor and also works as a support worker. He is one of our longest serving members of staff with 45 years under his belt. This is even longer than Dimensions (and its predecessor organisations) has been in existence, an oddity explained by the fact that he started work in the NHS and transferred across later. Here he reflects on his life, the last 35 years of which have been spent supporting people with learning disabilities and seeing the transformation of how they are treated and regarded.

I left school on 7th June 1974, a Friday. I started work on Monday 10th June 1974, and have not been out of work since!

Steve Thomas, support worker and Dimensions National Union Convenor

I was lucky that my father was a gossip; he managed to find out over the fence that the local TB hospital was looking for a gardener. He was keen to see that his eldest son was gainfully employed as soon as possible – so that he started to pay rent! An interview was duly arranged.

Luckily they saw the potential in this young ‘whipper snapper’ and, after an interview and several health checks, I was offered the job and started work the same day.

I had to report to a Mr Gardiner, who was the head gardener and who, I later found out, was a veteran of the North African campaign in World War Two. Many interesting stories followed over the next seven years.

I remember the first task I ever completed in paid employment was clearing a round ornamental flower bed of daffodils and wallflowers. I was feeling very proud of myself having cleared the said bed in about 40 minutes… but then was quickly disillusioned when my colleague came across and said I had finished it too early – I should have taken at least two hours. First lesson learned.

Over the next number of years I met many interesting people and have numerous stories to tell. Once I had to pick sprouts on the allotment that supplied the hospital kitchen on a particularly cold day. My attention was drawn to five or six pigeons who failed to fly off when I approached and I realised that they had all frozen to death where they’d landed… so it was pigeon pie that day with the sprouts!

After seven years at the hospital, many TB patients started to respond to new drugs coming on to the market and the way long-stay hospitals were used started to change, gradually being converted for people with ‘mental handicaps’.

Shortly after that, the main wards were emptied and deep cleaned and some of the long stay ‘mental handicap’ hospitals were emptied as a prelude to the new concept of opening community homes for these people, apparently following a model developed in Sweden. As my tea room was an office in a now large empty ward, I was asked if I would like to check in some furniture for one of the new homes. It would be a one-off I was told… but it carried on for the next 18 months!

I was also asked if I would like to go for a month’s trial working in the first new home opened in Bath. I did so with a degree of trepidation. As a gardener, I had had limited contact with the patients (as some referred to them as). I did the month’s trial, after which the Director of Nursing Services and her deputy came to see me to interview me for the change of role.

They invited me into the sitting room and asked if I wanted tea… very relaxed, I thought. We had a ten minute chat during which they said they had asked the manager how I was getting on and were very impressed with the response. They asked me how I was coping I said I thought I was doing well. Then, to my amazement, they offered me the job with a continuation of my current NHS contract but with a much higher hourly rate as well as overtime, enhancements and unsocial hours payments.

To say I was pleased would be an understatement.

Well, 35 years later and I still find myself doing shifts at the original house I joined all those years ago. I did some calculations and reflections recently. In all the schemes I have worked in, I have done over 4,000 sleep-ins and spent two and a half years asleep!

Thinking of all the changes I have witnessed in those years, I realise there are too many to mention. However, for me, the main one is that people we support are now people in their own right. It’s not ‘them and us’ any more. They have been empowered to lead their own lives as they wish, with care packages designed specifically for their needs.

This was brought home to me recently when was in a restaurant with a person we support (RH) and his mother. The waitress came over and ignored me and directly interacted with RH and asked him how he was, was he ready to order and what his favourite meal was. I was pleasantly (but not completely) surprised and couldn’t help thinking back 35 years and the avalanche of changes that have taken place. I think that is the one thing that has made all my years of service in the sector worthwhile.

I think one of the challenges for the years ahead is to maintain and increase funding levels to carry on enabling people to lead the life they want and rightly demand.

By Steve Thomas

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