6 Jun 2007

Many children came

I watched a documentary on Monday called 'and many children came' about the local Camphill Community. The film's director wrote about the programme in the Belfast Telegraph; 'Ulster community which truly loves its neighbour'. He says;
... it was by accident that I discovered the Camphill Community at Glencraig and found out that nearly 200 people live there on about 100 acres. They have a school and a farm, grow vegetables organically and are more than 60% self sufficient. Glencraig had been set up in 1954 as a place where children with special needs could be educated and looked after. Today, it is a community that has grown to include all ages.
I live fairly close to Glencraig, and I knew it contained a school where most of the children were autistic. So 2 years ago, Gordon and I went to look around the place on its open day. I had not realised that the children live at the school. Obviously, that alone meant there was no way Duncan would be going there. But the ethos of the place did not appeal either. It was all very nice, the staff seemed kind, the farm was well tended and impressive, the buildings were beautiful with colours muted and calm and wax pictures and candles and handwoven rugs in abundance. There were teachers who also had roles as house parents, as the children and adult residents lived on-site in homes of about 15 people, together with the co-workers; mostly students on a gap-year after leaving school. But where were the computers, the augmentative communication devices? How free were the residents to come and go as they pleased? Were they really helping each person develop to the best they could be? How did the children cope without their parents? The article continues;
I later discovered that Glencraig is a place where some very precious words are never preached, but practised every day: 'Love thy neighbour as thyself'. And it was only later that I got the opportunity to make a film about Glencraig, a film that might also prompt us to look at the way we live our lives.
There is no doubt it is a nice place and the people choosing to work there want to help others and create a peaceful environment. Several of the staff spoke of how they were a community, how they learned as much from the residents as they taught them. I may be overly cynical, but was it more than platitudes? I wonder if there is still bullying, if some residents are miserable. Is any place free from such problems? Do the staff have any concept of the advocacy movements by people with Down Syndrome and autism? Are they interested? They said that everyone has a say, but can the residents make decisions about anything more important than what to have for dinner? One of the staff describes how they assign tasks so everyone has a role to play;
"If someone is autistic and can only push a wheelbarrow that's OK," said Paul. "We need someone to push a wheelbarrow. Someone else can pick the peas. Someone else can pack and process them."
While watching the film, they showed a young blind woman. A co-worker told talked about this woman's role in the laundry, where she does no work, but brings cheer and light to the room. The same woman was shown playing music (a lute, I think) beautifully, with deep concentration and skill. I wondered, (accepting that I don't know anything about her beyond the short amount shown), how in a place that values the work of each person, they couldn't find a more active role for this woman. The article finishes;
Another truth was that in a world that has mostly lost its relationship with the earth there was a huge respect for it and for the rhythms of the day and of the year. The seasons were very important at Glencraig and the life of the community revolved round them and were cherished and celebrated. And then there was the truth of the light. The candle. A simple symbol that the founder of Camphill, Dr Karl Konig, loved. It was hard not to notice the candles at Glencraig, especially at festival times, gentle and tender and bright and everywhere. "We do not label people," said John. "Labelling people diminishes us. Everyone is equal here. Everyone is special. There is a light inside every human being."
I wondered if all the residents enjoy all the ceremonies, the candles and singing and joining of hands on the lawn. Were all the autistic residents really happy with that? I also disagree with the idea that a label diminishes anyone. Autism, is not an add-on, but an integral part of a person. Duncan's autism is a part of him and how he perceives and interacts with the world. To ignore his autism would not help him. I'm not at all sure that I'm being fair here. I hope that everyone at Glencraig is truly happy, fulfilled and cherished. It is a lot better than many of the alternatives, and without it, the residents might well be much worse off. But it did come across to me as a nice, Steiner-y prison.


Allie said...

That's really interesting. I don't know anything about the place - will have a read. I have a (probably unfair) prejudice against movements/communities that claim to be 'spiritual'. There have been so many that just used that as a cover for a very different reality. Like you, I could not imagine sending my children away from our family home - whatever anyone recommended.

kristina said...

I would not wish for Charlie to be in such a place either----sure he has a light shining from within him, and that is all the more reason that everyone needs to see him and that he needs to be part of the community (of course, he is part of the community). And Duncan too, also of course, in all the ways that you record here. Thanks for this measured, and very insightful, critique.

abfh said...

Yes, it does indeed look as if they are making too many assumptions. On what basis would they decide that an autistic person can only push a wheelbarrow? Would it matter whether or not this person wanted to spend his or her life pushing a wheelbarrow? Would anyone even try to ask?

What if that same autistic person, if provided with a computer and given the opportunity to learn more about the world, might find a modern career well suited to his or her particular talents and interests?

And as you say, a label doesn't necessarily diminish people; that depends on how the label is used, and pretending that human differences do not exist is not at all helpful.

Anne C., recently wrote a very thoughtful post, Of Boxes and Bias, discussing labels, assumptions, and acknowledging differences.

Sharon said...

Thanks for all your comments. The whole spiritual aspect of the place did not appeal to me. I don't think I'd be employed there, they'd not be happy with my preference for cheesy RnB over folksy songs about candles and harvests. ;-)

Kristina, absolutely yes! Charlie and Duncan can go shine their light wherever they are. They probably wouldn't like the music much either!

Abfh, it really looked like they were not, despite what they said, optimising peoples chances. Someone said on film that many of the residents couldn't read or write. What efforts had been made to teach them? The Steiner ethos is against tv and computers. Such media have been hugely beneficial to Duncan in his learning and will continue to be.

Sharon said...

No thanks for your comment, anonymous. The link you provided is to a quack. I'm really not interested in his thoughts.

VAB said...

It would not by my choice for our guy and I'm sure if I asked our guy, it would not be his choice either. Likewise, I wouldn't go and live on a communal farm myself. That said, the way in which the article describes people with special needs being treated does not sound any different from the way in which ordinary hippies on a commune are treated. Just because I happen to be into technology and individualism, it does not follow that those are the only approaches to life that are acceptable. There are lots of these sorts of places where children and adults live. I would not make a special judgment on this place, just because the residents happen to have special needs.

abfh said...

VAB, I grew up around plenty of New Age folks, and I don't have a problem with people choosing to live on a commune if that's what they want, but it looks like the residents aren't being given a meaningful choice.

How can they decide whether they would prefer technology and individualism if they are sent to this farm as young children, are never taught to read and write, and don't even know what a computer is? (By way of contrast, the Amish, who live in small villages and avoid modern technology, nevertheless encourage their children to learn about the outside world so that they can make an informed choice.)

Sharon -- I'd suggest deleting the anonymous post that links to the quack site. It looks like spam designed to raise the quack's search engine rankings.

Helen said...

Camphill is a Steiner based group I think. We have a few in Scotland. I've always been a bit wary of Steiner to be honest. I'm sure someone else on this blogring used to blog about the problems with Steiner as an ideology but I can't remember who. Kids I know with autism who went/go to Steiner/Camphill schools are "included" in that they're present but there it often ends. Often it feels to be like the people who work there are patronising & say things they think they "should" say or "should" believe but I doubt there is much in it. I'm sure it was Steiner who talked about people with Down's Syndrome being inferior in some way so I don't think I'd choose a school based on his philosophy for any child with special needs that I cared for.

Sharon said...

VAB, I didn't mean to negatively judge people who want to live in a commune or in on a farm or whatever. It's the way they talked about the disabled residents that bothered me, and like Abfh said, knowing how much control they have over their lives and whether or not they have been given the best opportunities to have that control. I know many places are much much worse. But the programme and article were giving such a glowing, uncritical view of the place, and these questions did arise in my mind.

Abfh, they do attempt to teach the children, but they're not exactly using the latest research in promoting cognitive development of developmentally delayed and/or learning disabled children. Their bias against electronic media, would certainly stifle many autistic children's potential.

Helen, the Camphill communities are based on Steiner philosophy, which does, as you've pointed out, have some totally dodgy views of disability, among other things.
Duncan's art would not be appreciated either. It actually wouldn't be allowed, since the children are not allowed to use (or wear) the colour black.
EF wrote about how her son (in particular) was treated in his Steiner school.

r.b. said...

>>>A co-worker told talked about this woman's role in the laundry, where she does no work, but brings cheer and light to the room. The same woman was shown playing music (a lute, I think) beautifully, with deep concentration and skill.<<<

Maybe it's just me, but I think this woman has found her work. She's probably the happiest one there!

Allie said...

Tagged you!

dottyspots said...

Camphill is tied up with Anthroposophy (the philosophy that underpins Steiner/Waldorf ed.)

Elderfaery had a negative family experience with a Steiner school in Denmark, but there are a couple of blogs on the ring who are Waldorf-inspired - islamichomeschooldiary and the other one escapes me right now, but has light in the title, is reasonably new and the writer is Muslim (and I should remember it because I do regularly read her blog).

I've been interested in Steiner's philosophies, because I'm interested to learn about different approaches to life. Some of it appeals, especially if one can read through the way it is written (i.e. bear in mind the time of writing and the language used - because we are all to a greater or lesser extent effected by the predominant attitudes of the culture/society we are a part of), however, some of it doesn't - that's the beauty of HE though, the opportunity to take onboard what resonates and bypass what doesn't.

Sharon said...

Hi Dottyspots. You are absolutely spot on, HE is so wonderful because of the way you can pick and choose what ideas you use according to what works for your family and each individual child. I have read a bit about Steiner education and also looked around the ordinary Steiner school near me, on its open day. It was too restrictive for my liking, though I did like the wet-on-wet painting so we've done that a few times at home.
I know Steiner's writings were shaped by the time in which he lived. But the current thinking of Steiner and Camphill schools on disability, doesn't appeal.

ballastexistenz said...

Steiner was also heavily racist, as I remember.

But in general, these "communities" scare me more than institutions that look like dungeons.

Rather be strapped down and beaten than have powdered sugar poured all over my life by my captors.

stuart said...

I am glad to hear families expressing their desire to keep thier loved ones at home. i am a co-worker at a camphill community for young adults, and have often wondered (particularly at this time of year when the students are leaving after their 4 or 5 years of college life) that they rarely seem to go home. in fact home seems like a last resort. Is supported living or foster families really better I wonder!?!

I understand people's wariness of camphill. It is easy to think of it as too "other" - however - i would advise asking parents who have sent their children to camphill - often they too began as extreme skeptics - and listen to them. the stories are extremely positive. Actually the best "advert" for Camphill are the residents / students themselves. How can you compare this with what you find in the average day centres??
It is not a commune, by the way Vab, but a community, with its origins in scotland 66 years ago. It is probably the most unhippy place you could imagine. its not findhorn for example, and as such is not part of the new age movement. We encourage parents to get involved, take their loved ones out whenever they wish - its daft to suggest its a steiner prison.

The most positive attribute of anthroposphy is its stance against indoctrination - there is no forced enthusiasm in camphill.

Anonymous said...

I'm a coworker on a Camphill Community for adults, and whilst it's been a fantastic experience for me I too have reservations about certain aspects of Camphill. Although the creative/spiritual/earthy lifestyle is enviable for many of us in the ratrace, few of the residents have actually chosen it for themselves. I also feel the lack of computer access for residents, particularly autistic, is a shame. Although I notice some Camphills now have blogs, the residents themselves dont' seem to manage the content.

In addition, and hence why I am keeping my name anonymous, I have heard from many sources that Camphill communities for children do not prepare them terribly well for the 'real world' -to the extent that few young Camphill graduates meet the independence criteria for joining an adult community...

As I say, very mixed views on these. Very interesting though.

Anonymous said...

I prefer not to give details, but I worked on a Camphill Community for adults and definitely can say that there is very little concept of advocacy built into it. It is not an exaggeration to say that, where I was, choosing what they have for dinner is seen as 'having a say'. Those houseparents and co-workers who tried to promote advocacy were extremely unwelcome, to the extent they were forced out in extremely acrimonious circumstances.

I cannot speak for all Camphills, but there are many stories I have heard which make me suspect something rotten at the core of these 'sugar coated prisons'. I think you are right not to send your child there.

Anonymous said...

I have also found all the contributions very interesting and honest. I would like to add some points important to me. Steiner Waldorf education is not anti-technology but rather is against people feeling 'out-of-touch' with their surroundings. This strong ethos is often misunderstood to mean computers, tv, video games etc are swept under a carpet and not engaged with as things which can actually become and add to a way of life. Camphill Glencraig is trying to integrate technology with its ethos and this takes time. It also requires careful consideration with regards to how it effects the other important positive aspects as mentioned above.
Also Camphill Community Glencraig has many 'day-pupils' who only attend from monday to friday 9am-4pm. This was not focused on in the documentary because it is a newer innovation and the director felt he wanted to promote the purist example of the community lifestyle.
I am not saying that the criticisms are naive but perhaps they are a little reactionary to what was seen within the context of a single documentary made by someone who exists outside of the community. As someone mentioned in a post above perhaps the best way to educate oneself about the community would be to visit it and speak to people within it, at least then the criticisms would be connected to an actual 'a priori' experience.
Fascinating discussions though.
P.S. I have come from a Waldorf educated background and have in a previous incarnation been a co-worker (hence my obvious leanings towards Camphill Communities).

Sharon said...

Thank you for your comments.

You wrote, "Camphill Glencraig is trying to integrate technology with its ethos and this takes time. It also requires careful consideration with regards to how it effects the other important positive aspects as mentioned above."

I am glad to hear that technology is not totally eschewed at Camphill Glencraig. I do wonder what you mean by the above statement though. How hard can it be to integrate something like a text to speech device for someone who cannot talk but may be able to type or push a few buttons?

The cerebral palsy charity Scope is running an important campaign called No Voice, No Choice which calls for Alternative and Augmentative Communication equipment to be made available to all those who need it. I am sure there are many people in the Camphill communities who would benefit from such devices.

Thank you also for the information on day pupils. This didn't appear to be an option when I talked to people at the school 2 years ago.

"I am not saying that the criticisms are naive but perhaps they are a little reactionary to what was seen within the context of a single documentary made by someone who exists outside of the community. As someone mentioned in a post above perhaps the best way to educate oneself about the community would be to visit it and speak to people within it, at least then the criticisms would be connected to an actual 'a priori' experience."

I have visited the school on one of the open days there. This doesn't give a very detailed insight, so I was just voicing impressions and opinions from that visit and from a short documentary, limited as they are. Others who have commented here say they have much more experience of the Camphill communities.

Flavia said...

This made me giggle knowingly. I remember falling briefly for the Steiner school kindergarten, and that was enough to learn what goes on in that world. I had a n inkling my daughter had Aspergers, but she wasn't diagnosed until age 8. The Kindergarten teacher already made assumptions "You must get your child to socialize more!" ...she didn't want to come off the wooden train; in hindsight, the wooden train was the only toy she really liked! Thomas the tank was frowned upon as the trains had faces and appeared on TV! My daughter, like your son, was obsessed with Thomas The Tank, so this was heartbreaking!
Once, my daughter had a meltdown as she didn't want to sit in the circle and join hands with strangers, the teacher said "I think you must leave!" I felt like I was some sort of a disgrace to their wooly dressed (extremely itchy for autistic children!) comrades.
I'm so glad I saw the light. My daughter made up stories about a goose chasing the teacher with the letters of the alphabet, as learning to read and learn the alphabet was not allowed till age 6!
Yes, the advocacy and mainstream treatment for those on the autism spectrum is paramount. My daughter loved to read about autism, psychology and conventional approaches - these would be very frowned upon. Bach flower remedies are all well and good, but they aren't going to help you through a panic attack if depression is the cause! And yes, computers are a vital form of communication.