G2 Information Sheet The Camden Society: Our history

Jack Harris, founder, with members. Jack was 40 years ahead of his time, telling members they could do what they liked and he would treat them like adults.

Jack Harris, founder, with members. Jack was 40 years ahead of his time, telling members they could do what they liked and he would treat them like adults.

Founded in the living rooms of a group of parents in the London Borough of Camden in 1966, the Camden Society began life as a campaigning organisation.

Initially coming together to offer one another emotional and practical support, the Camden parents soon began to campaign for a more inclusive society for people with learning disabilities.

In social context

“ There are 120,000 or 130,000 feeble minded persons at large in our midst. These unhappy beings deserve our care and assistance, and deserve all that could be done for them, now that they are in the world, by a Christian and scientific civilisation. But let it end there if possible. If we  were able to segregate these people under proper conditions, so that their curse died with them and was not transmitted to future generations, we should have taken up our shoulders in our own lifetime a work of which those who came after us would owe us a debt of gratitude”. Winston Churchill Reported in The Times 15th July 1910.

This thinking turned into the building of large mental deficiency colonies and hospitals in rural areas where male and female, ‘improvable’ and ‘unimprovable’ children and ‘improvable’ and ‘unimprovable’ adults were all kept segregated from each other.

In 1966 children with learning disabilities were often sent away from their families at an early age, to be ‘cared for’ in long-stay institutions, sometimes for life. Others were excluded from the education system and were isolated from their communities. A number of reports and books had highlighted the emotional and social impoverishment, and the denial of the civil liberties of children in institutions across Britain.

The 1970 Education Act strengthened the case for change as it enshrined the idea that all children had a right to an education. Previously, children with learning disabilities had been judged as ‘ineducable’.

Great Stoney special school Ongar                           Infant class at Great Stoney 1940’s

Bringing people home from long stay hospitals

Throughout the next two decades, the momentum towards care in the community gathered, and the Camden Society was one of the first organisations to bring people home from long-stay institutions.

The effect on people’s lives cannot be overestimated. As Carol who lived in St Lawrence’s Hospital for 30 years says:

“I’m telling you that place was like a prison. You could not do what you wanted… You were not allowed to choose what you wanted to eat. If you didn’t eat up you were given a sop like a baby, a milk sop. You had to work whether you wanted to or not. Because otherwise you’d lose everything, no pleasures, nothing. You had to keep your hair tidy or they’d cut it, into a fringe… That’s if you were ‘in disgrace’.”

By the mid-1980s, the Camden Society had become a registered charity, offering supported living, leisure and training for work and  services to people with learning disabilities

What is supported living?

A disabled person gets the support they need to live in their own home. If the person’s needs change the support they get can also be changed. The most important thing is that the support matches the person’s needs. This means the supports are designed for the person…they fit the person, the person does not have to fit the supports. This helps the person to live in their community.

Common elements of supported living include:

  • Separation of housing and support
  • Support is provided by a combination of informal (non-paid) and paid support with intentional strategies used to develop informal support
  • Paid support is individualised, flexible and under the control of the disabled person

Where a service provider is involved, it stands beside the disabled person with and their family to develop and implement the lifestyle the person wants.

Where we are today

Since then, we have expanded these services and widened our remit to include people with physical impairments, people with mental health needs, and people who need additional support to maintain their independence. We now work across London and Oxfordshire, running supported living, training, employment and leisure services.

Today, we support over 600 people every week and employ 200 permanent staff with around 50 volunteers and an annual income of £9 million.

What is left to be done

Whilst the lives of disabled people have been significantly improved over the last four decades, there is still much work to be done.

Today only 10% of people with learning difficulties are in paid employment due to negative discrimination from employers, low expectations from staff and a lack of opportunity to train for, and enter, jobs.

The health needs of many people are left unmet, while the choice to live independently in housing that meet people’s needs, culture and lifestyle is too often non-existent.

Most people with learning disabilities continue to spend their days in segregated, Government-funded day centres or attend colleges, enrolling onto the same courses year after year, with little support to progress.

The hospitals and segregation have largely gone but until all disabled people have the support and freedom to develop their lives in whatever ways they choose, the Camden Society’s work will continue.


Since the 1940s the lives of people with learning difficulties have changed enormously. From being unseen, locked away, forgotten, they have gradually become visible, gained rights and come back into society.

The last long stay hospital in England closed in May 2009. More people with learning disabilities are now able to live in a home of their own, in the way that they want. Changes to the law, including human rights and equality legislation and the Disability Discrimination Act, have given people a set of enforceable rights. It is now illegal to discriminate against a disabled person  and these same laws have started to protect people from abuse.

The days of children with learning difficulties being judged ‘ineducable’ have passed. All families now have a right to choose the school they send their children to, whether it is mainstream or specialist. Leisure opportunities include people competing on an international level in Paralympics- a far cry from the occasional trip to a hospital canteen. Although only 10% of people with a learning difficulty have paid work in the UK today, employers are becoming increasingly aware of a largely untapped pool of talents and skills. Most importantly, young people now have different expectations of how their lives should be, a sense of place they want in society and how to get it.

These changes have come about through the determination, collective effort and resolute campaigning of people who believe in human rights-people with learning difficulties, their families and the staff, volunteers and trustees of organisations like the Camden Society.

More information http://www.thecamdensociety.co.uk

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