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Report of the Network Meeting 2012

By Ruth Moore
Pre-Therapy International Network Meeting, Ghent, Belgium, 26-27 October 2012
Following the workshop with Dion Van Werde, and armed with a desire to 'do' something with this renewed inspiration and hopefulness, I contacted Dion, asking for help and ideas
in how I could find out more about Pre-Therapy and contact working - who works in this way, what their experiences may be, what they encounter - wondering about the possibilities of making contacts which might lead to my being able to experience and practice Pre-Therapy, hoping for ideas for a research inquiry into Pre-Therapy with people with learning disability. He suggested I attend the International Network and meet persons with a passion for Pre- Therapy.
It was incredibly easy to get to Ghent. For once, it was an advantage to live in the North of England. I took a short flight from Leeds Bradford Airport (less than one hour) to Brussels and then took the train from the Airport station direct to Ghent (around 80 minutes). I found a very cheap hotel room, in the centre of Ghent, and, from the mailing list sent by the Network, knew that others attending would also be staying in local hotels. I arrived on the Thursday evening and so was rested and settled for the start of the Meeting on Friday. I had the morning to take a quick look around Ghent; to get a feel for the place.
The Network meeting was held at Psychiatrisch Ziekenhuis Sint-Camillus, a short tram and bus ride from Ghent centre, and was hosted by Dion, who co-ordinates the Pre- Therapy Network. Sint-Camillus is a mediumsized psychiatric hospital. It's a beautiful, open and green setting, the sort of hospital which has been closed down here in the UK- the sites sold off to developers of luxury living. Although I didn't get the opportunity to see inside the wards, I did feel, in walking around the hospital grounds, a sense of freedom, safety and calm. Lots of people were walking around, enjoying the surroundings and the fresh air, some seeming to be lost in their own realities, some interacting in groups, some seeming to commune with nature.
Small numbers
The participants gathered in the restaurant, to register, meet and greet, and enjoy a (very good) lunch (with wine too!). There was a very warm welcome and an easy feel to meeting new people, with conversation and wine flowing with ease.
The venue for the network was one of the beautiful, historic buildings in the hospital setting, Part of which was occupied by clinical areas. We were provided with two large wood-panelled rooms for our sole use. I liked that I could hear the life of the hospital going on in the background, it didn't feel at all clinical or remote. I realised that I miss those sounds in my current daily working.
I was surprised at the small number of persons attending the network (20), and also surprised that I was the only person from the UK. Allthe presentations and discussions were
held in English. I understand that membership numbers are low (less than 200). Belgium, France, Poland, Austria, Denmark, Switzerland, Germany and UK were represented. However,even with such a small number present, there was a packed schedule of presentations, reports and discussions planned for the remainder of Friday and for Saturday.
The themes of these being, administrative, website, membership, news of and planning of publications, training programmes in France, Pre-Therapy and contact working in many different settings including mental health, learning disability, dementia care, end of life care, autistic spectrum, occupational therapy, community working, working with carers, whole team approaches. There was international appreciation of the work of Garry Prouty and a report on Dion's presentation at the WAPCEP conference in Antwerp, in July 2012.
What I really loved was the film presentation of working with persons with learning disability in Poland, given by AlicjaMul and Paciorek Tadeusz. They provide a day care service, which facilitates learning skills that will enable people to engage in paid employment. I'm reminded of the work and thinking of Wolfsenberger and his theory of Social Role Valorisation (1983), which 'informed' care delivery within Care in the Community in the UK (a much misunderstood theory which was intended to combat the misinterpretation of 'Normalization', in my view, and 'Care in the Community' being something of an oxymoron). I enjoyed hearing the experiences of others, working in varied settings, and hearing Dion's presentation on 'Pre-Therapy translated into a ward milieu', where all team members have a shared vision and purpose. Hearing the passion of those who have worked in this way for many years, such as Marlis Portner, Lisbeth Sommerbeck, Dion Van Werde, Paul Dierick, (see suggested reading at end) and how their work inspires others and enables and facilitates human contact with persons in a wide variety of settings, which are often seen as being limiting and contact-less. Hearing how Pre-Therapy is being taken forward by other professionals in their practice and in their research, all driven by passion and compassion.
What have I gained?
Friday evening was an opportunity to socialise with a shared meal in Ghent and a visit to a bar or two! Saturday saw the Network Meeting brought to a close at 5pm. On Sunday, before catching my flight back to Leeds, I had time to explore Ghent. It's a historic and beautiful town, with lots of churches. The bells were ringing out, 'Youmade me love you, I didn't want to do it' as I sat outside a cafe with a coffee,watching, perhaps through rather romantically-tin ted glasses, people being much more in contact with each other, than I experience at home; a much slower pace of life; taking time to chat, laugh, eat and drink communally. Wonderfully enticing shops too, so perhaps it was a good thing that it was Sunday and they were closed. In the current economic climate, Belgium is not cheap, to a Brit!
As I sat, I reflected on what I was taking away with me from the Network. Whilst it was amazing to hear how persons with learning disability are being empowered to make their own choices, for example being afforded opportunities to determine when they might wish to eat and what they fancy; to go outside, when they wish; to learn skills which will enable some financial independence and to contribute to the wider community. I was also saddened that these aspects of daily living, which are taken as givens by the majority, are regarded as 'innovative' and 'steps forward'. I realised that, whilst my experience is that there is a very long way to go in valuing persons with learning disability as Persons, here, in the UK, perhaps, we are further down that road. I felt sadness - and anger, too - that there is still so much to combat in people's attitudes towards de-valued groups.
A theme which ran through the discussions was: 'Howmany persons are working in a person centred way, with Pre-Therapy and contact working, perhaps (like me) not having a theoretical underpinning for their way of being? Feeling isolated, they may feel they are working against the system. How can contact be made with these persons?
Another question raised was 'Would knowing that one is not alone, for example, by being in touch with networks such as the Pre-Therapy network, offer support and encouragement? Would having a theoretical underpinning make any difference?

Moore, R. (2013). Pre-Therapy and Contact Work - Rediscovering humanity in working with persons with learning disabilities and/or mental health challenges. Person-Centred Quarterly, 2013(1), 18-23.