During the late 1980s and early 1990s Steve Mee was a nurse and then Resettlement Officer at the Royal Albert. This was one aspect of a lengthy and varied professional and academic life involved with people with learning disabilities. However, such a career profile seemed most unlikely when he applied for his first job in learning disability services.
In an interview with Nigel Ingham on September 22nd 2005, he recalled going for a Care Assistant post at Turner Village Institution in Colchester, Essex in 1979.
“When I left (Essex) university I didn’t want any career option so I worked in a shipyard, worked in a factory, ran a pub for a year and then went to be a Care Assistant at the local institution, ‘cause they were the only jobs left …I used to take casual jobs which would usually be for three or four month contracts that sort of thing. And Thatcher had just come along – ’79 – and almost immediately the casual job labour market dried up so there were no outdoor type jobs left. And literally the only one in the Job Centre was Care Assistant. And it was a joint advert for Mental Health and Learning Disability. I didn’t know what either was really but I just took the first one to reply which was Learning Disability. They were quickest to reply. And I took up the post there. But they were dead keen when I first went ‘cause in those days it was very unusual to have a degree and be in Learning Disability Services. So, I went along to be interviewed as a Care Assistant and they whisked me away to the School of Nursing straight after the Care Assistant job interview to try and get me on the training… Turner Village in Essex, in Colchester. So, I went purely to be a Care Assistant and I came home with a place on the course. But it wasn’t starting for another three or four months so I was a Care Assistant up until that point.
And were you aware of Turner Village prior to going along?
No. And I didn’t know what learning disability was. Mental subnormality as it was then.
So, what were impressions of going up – presumably the interview was at Turner Village… What was that like at the time?
‘It was a 1930s vision. It was built in the 1930s so they called them Villas, so they were wards but they were separate entities so there was no big main building. And they were all arranged around a huge, huge square, field – so it was actually quite rural, trees everywhere. I thought the environment looked quite nice. But I think that first day I went – for the interview – I never saw anybody with a learning disability. I saw a couple of people being pushed in wheelchairs but the School of Nursing, sorry the interview room was right by the entrance and so was the School of Nursing.
So, you thought it looked quite nice?…
The environment …
Did you have any other feelings as you arrived for interview?
No, I think I just viewed it like I viewed, you know if I went for a factory job or whatever – “I need the money. I don’t really care what it’s like” – although, no that’s not quite right. ‘Cause I remember when I first went for the interview Susan* (name changed) couldn’t imagine it, she was laughing about it because at that point I couldn’t – if I saw anybody with a disability or disfigurement I couldn’t look. I used to feel sick, really put off. So, I was probably the last person really to go and work in an environment like that.’
And do you remember the actual interview…?
‘I was asked if I played sport. I was asked why I wanted the job. And I was very honest: it was purely sort of utilitarian move. And as I say I then went straight on. They did an impromptu School of Nursing interview and they asked me why I wanted to do the training. And I said I didn’t, “I’ve just been sent across. What is it? You tell what it is. I don’t know what it’s all about.” (Laughs) They were obviously keen to have somebody with a degree there and they didn’t care about commitment or anything else. They actually told me, “Yes you are just the sort of person we’re looking for. You’ve got a place on the course.” – I’m remembering it all now. It’s all a long time ago – they then said, ‘But we’ll have to invite you for a proper interview.” So, I was invited for an interview knowing I’d been told I’d got a place on the course. But there was like a day when there was about a dozen of us there all being interviewed, a more serious attempt. But I was getting sort of winks from the person who’d interviewed me before. (Laughs)… It was like a farce. The whole thing was just a farce.
And again, do you remember what you were asked at that sort of more formal interview?
‘”See you’ve got a degree, do you think you’d be interested in writing articles and that sort of thing?” That was what they were interested in. And again, I was asked, they said – this was obviously at a lower level, because in those days it was certificate level – “You’ve got a degree and it was a reasonable standard degree. It’s not going to be much of a challenge, why do you want to come on the course?” And I said, “Well I’m not sure I do really.” And the thinking, again utilitarian, was that – this doesn’t reflect very well on me at all does it? – But by the time I went for the interview at the School of Nursing I’d already been a Care Assistant for, the formal interview, I’d only been a Care Assistant for a while and it was really quite unpleasant work. The ward they put me on was the one where they couldn’t keep Care Assistants. It was pretty awful, the worst I’ve ever worked in. And in those days you got the same money for training as you did for being a Care Assistant. And I thought, “Well it’s going to be easier than, I can sit in class at a level below that which I’ve already achieved. They only do placements. You know, you’re not stuck anywhere.” So even at that point I think I saw it as just a way of earning money till I found out what I wanted to do.’