Celebrating 50 years of Innovate Trust: the amazing history of the UK’s first supported living home

Innovate Trust celebrates its 50th birthday this year. This independent charity, which has changed the lives of disabled people across the world, started right here, at Cardiff University. This year, volunteers with disabilities have delved into the charity’s humble beginnings, and are sharing its story through a new exhibition.

Innovate Trust – which started its life as ‘Cardiff Universities Social Services’ – works with adults with learning disabilities, mental health conditions, physical disabilities or sensory impairments in South Wales. They provide supported living services, as well as careers training, opportunities for work and socialising.

Starting as a trailblazing student project known as ‘C.U.S.S.’, it has since become one of the most influential charities of its kind – setting the standard world-wide for providing dignity and agency to people with learning disabilities.

 

Early Days 1967 – 1973

In 1967, a group of students at Cardiff University decided to challenge the status quo. They believed that, with the right support, people with learning disabilities could lead independent lives.

A lifetime of hospitalisation was a common occurrence for people with learning disabilities at the time. The ‘Ely Hospital Scandal’ had revealed that adults with learning disabilities in Cardiff were subject to poor care and cruelty. The students set out to prove that, as a society, we could do better – and the C.U.S.S. project was born.

Cardiff Universities Social Services, or C.U.S.S., volunteers worked supporting 25 adults with learning disabilities at Ely Hospital. The project provided days out, opportunities to learn new skills, and acted as a social contact.

Two men sit side by side, their hands overlapping. They are both smiling and looking happy

Prof Jim Mansell CBE, founding member of CUSS, with John O’Brien (1953 – 2011). John was one of the first people to join the CUSS group home project. In Ely Hospital, he had a reputation as short-tempered ‘trouble-maker’. His friends and colleagues at Innovate Trust remember him as a ‘patient and charming man’ with a ‘first class sense of humour’.

 

A Daring Escape

Two of the participants, emboldened and encouraged by what they’d learned through the project, decided to leave the hospital grounds on their own, to go swimming in the local pool.

When they were spotted by an off-duty nurse, the two were immediately returned to the hospital – and given a telling off. The student volunteers, however, felt secretly proud that the hospital’s residents had managed to get so far on their own.

 

The UK’s First Group Home – 1974

Following the success of the early volunteering project, the students felt more could be done to improve the lives of those with learning disabilities.

After much planning and preparation, the students worked with Cardiff Council and Ely Hospital to open the UK’s first group home. Five adults with learning disabilities from the hospital and three student volunteers moved in to a home in Rhuthin Gardens, Cathays. During the day, the group home tenants would spend their time at Trelai adult training centre, and the students attended lectures.

Black and white photograph of a man called Alan, who has Down's Syndrome. He looks happy.

Alan was one of the first inhabitants of the supported living home in Rhuthin Gardens. He had been confined to hospital since he was a young boy, and his participation in the group home project paved the way for better care for countless disabled people, enabling them to live full, happy lives.

Having been hospitalised for a number of years, each of the adults with disabilities were provided with basic support in learning to live independently. At Ely Hospital, they had not been afforded the opportunity to cook for themselves, to choose their clothes – after a short period of adjustment, the project participants found themselves leading happy, full lives as members of a community.

 

Further Development – from Hospitals to Homes

After the success of the group home experiment, the students spent the next few years raising awareness of the Group Home model – publishing research and reports, and sharing their work with local authorities, hospitals and universities. As it grew in its scope and reputation, the charity was able to relocate to a more sustainable property on King’s Road in Cardiff, and to open more group homes, funded by the Welsh Office.

In 1977, the charity also opened a respite centre for adults with learning disabilities who lived with their families. This home was used to provide a break for carers and adults with learning disabilities, and remains open to this day.

In 1981 Cardiff Council opened a new department, aimed at replicating and extending the Group Home project, opening a number of supported living homes. By 1983, the Welsh Office launched an ‘All Wales strategy for the development of Services for mentally handicapped people’. Partly a response to the Ely Hospital scandal, the strategy required that local authorities move away from the mass institutionalisation of people with learning disabilities, and adopt the supported living model developed by C.U.S.S.

 

Innovation in Social Care

Over the next few years, C.U.S.S. worked to support local authorities across Wales to implement this plan, giving advice on how to set up new services, which would offer independence, agency and dignity to people with learning disabilities.

The charity changed its name to Innovate Trust in 2001, and continued to, well, innovate: developing a bespoke recruitment service, creating a business providing employment for people with learning disabilities, training programmes for disabled people interested in environmental work and spending time outdoors.

In 2017, Innovate Trust worked with NESTA to explore how smart technology might be used to support people with learning disabilities. The award-winning project resulted in the provision of smart devices to 197 individuals receiving support across south east Wales.

Photograph of small exhibition, with text panels, and objects in cases

50 Years of Innovate Trust explores the hidden history of social care. It tells the story of how a small group of disabled people and student volunteers in the 1960s paved the way for radical change in how disabled people are treated by the medical profession, and by society at large.

Thanks to support from the National Lottery Heritage Fund, volunteers with a range of learning abilities spent a year researching the organisation’s amazing history – researching documents, filming stories and establishing permanent records in local archives. As recognition of the organisation’s origins at Cardiff University, its early archives and reports were donated to the University’s Special Collections and Archives, where they can be accessed by anyone who wishes to read them.

The exhibition ‘50 Years of Innovate Trust‘ is on display at Cardiff University Special Collections and Archives, Arts and Social Studies Library, Colum Drive, CF10 3EU. If you would like to speak to a member of Innovate Trust, please contact Kieran Vass.

Published with thanks to the Innovate Trust for providing the research for this post.

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