Westminster Society marks 50 years since beginning in an era of ‘nothing’ for people with disabilities

The way society treats people with disabilities has changed immeasurably over the last 50 years, and one Westminster charity has been right at the heart of it.

The Westminster Society for People with Learning Disabilities marked its historic 50th anniversary last week, with service users joining staff and Deputy Mayor Dr Cyril Nemeth for a celebration of its pioneering past.

The charity now has more than 280 staff and helps thousands of the borough’s residents through a network of projects.

But as founding member Shirley Rodwell remembers, its beginnings were much more humble.

“A woman called Gillian Keapley had a disabled child and wanted to get in touch with other mothers in the same position,” she says.

“There was absolutely nothing available for disabled children at that time, they were just put on the rubbish heap.

“Trying to help them reach their potential was just unheard of, if a disabled child was crying on the bus, you would have people muttering, ‘that child should be sent away’.”

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After meeting with four other mothers of disabled children and Shirley, who agreed to help with publicity and fundraising, the charity opened in a small room.

“It was very, very difficult at first. The room’s windows were blacked out and it opened straight onto the road,” she says.

“We asked the milkman and postman to help us find other families we could help.”

The charity grew quickly, and people came from around the country to see the work they were doing.

In the 1970s, they opened London’s first respite care centre, a children’s home and accommodation for people with learning difficulties.

In the 1980s, with the end of long stay hospitals, there was an influx of people seeking the Westminster Society’s help.

“We had people arrive who had never been able to choose what clothes they would wear before, or never been able to decide what colour they wanted their room painted,” says Shirley.

In response, they opened six housing schemes, and a training flat where people could learn to live independently.

Over the last year, the Society has battled a �2 million cut to its funding, but managed to survive without a drastic reduction in the care they provide.

Fifty years on from an era when no one did anything for people with disabilities, the Society was able to send many of its users to watch the London Paralympic Games.

“It was liberation, complete liberation,” says Shirley, “people are so much more tolerant now.”