I first heard about Leonard and his work in 1958 when I was at Cambridge. I spent the summer with a friend, who had polio, and he told me about Le Court, and how it needed volunteers. On 9 December 1958 I signed up. I can only say that during my first few days I was overwhelmed.
In my diary from then, I find that I immediately felt two things. The first was how immensely happy Le Court was — it was brimming with people who were warm and welcoming. But second it really gave me a sense of what life was all about. What I learnt in those two weeks, and then later the next year in the summer, impacted me for the rest of my life and gave me a mode of understanding of how I wanted to be a doctor.
I really understood, for example, that what makes us most human is the right to choose. That disabled people have the right to decide what happens to them and when, whether it is daily events like washing and eating, or how and what type of medical treatment they have. Daily events really did have meaning for every person we helped, and no one should stagnate or have to submit to another’s decisions.
I also learnt as volunteers we were only one part of a person’s life. Yes we were donating our time to their convenience, but we were there simply to help — we did not invade people’s personal lives. There was a lot of banter — some residents called us ‘the slaves’ — but we were there to be part of their lives, not all of their lives.
It’s true that attitudes to disability have changed immensely since then. In the 1950s disabled people were really considered outsiders, and Le Court was a place of sanctuary. I think this idea of choice has taken a long time to come through. I feel, as did Leonard Cheshire from the way he set up his foundation, and his writing, people must feel free in the choices they make. That is still true today.
In the 1950s disabled people were really considered outsiders, and Le Court was a place of sanctuary.