OPINION: AROUND Australia, disability rights activists are baying for the closure of the Stockton Centre, attacking the motives and integrity of anyone fighting to keep it open.
Few, if any, have ever visited the place. Few, if any, have the slightest idea what conditions are like for the 400 or so intellectually disabled people now living there. It could be a Dickensian hell-hole or Newcastle's answer to Club Med. For disability advocates, however, it's completely irrelevant.
To them, it's all absolutely simple and straightforward. Stockton is an old-style institution in which disabled people are congregated and cut off from the community and therefore must be closed - and the sooner the better.
This is because among disability advocates, "institution" is a hot-button word guaranteed to produce furiously indignant and emotional outbursts, based either on bitter memories of being institutionalised themselves or else of reading others' accounts.
Apart from historical injustices, advocates also loathe the negative, harmful messages they say such settings continue to convey to disabled people and the community alike; that disability is something to be feared, scorned and hidden away.
So, to fight for the retention of one of the last surviving examples of a large-scale institution, as hundreds of families, staff and Newcastle residents are now doing, was always guaranteed to set off a storm of outrage among activists, many relying on former residents' accounts of maltreatment and inhumane conditions decades ago to justify their attacks.
But what are conditions in Stockton, and at Tomaree and Kanangra, also now slated for closure by 2018, actually like nowadays? To find out, I decided to see for myself - something other disability activists might dismiss as unnecessary.
Indeed, in a recent statement to Parliament, Disabilities Minister John Ajaka quoted in support of closure comments made by one outraged disability advocate who lives 4000 kilometres away, in WA.
To visit Stockton, however, is to realise this issue is nowhere near as simple as some disability advocates insist. Yes, the place is definitely a now-outdated form of accommodation for people with disabilities, but so too are accounts written by people resident there decades ago.
The gloomy wards in which men and women were once jumbled together have long been replaced by private bedrooms in refurbished units or cottages. There's a swimming pool complex, a gym and a tree-lined sports oval. Some residents work in the communal garden, others attend day programs off site.
A wide range of medical specialists visit regularly and there are therapists, nurses and doctors on site as well as a dental clinic. As I know from personal experience, many such services will be far more difficult for Stockton's severely disabled residents to access once in the community.
The answer, though, is not institutionalisation - on this I agree with every other disability rights advocate around Australia. But surely that case can and should be made without many advocates subjecting elderly parents, other family members and staff working at these places to so much personal and deeply hurtful abuse?
Yes, staff I spoke to are worried about what it means for them in terms of future job security, but they are also deeply concerned the severely intellectually disabled people they spend their lives working with will be worse off when moved, particularly in relation to medical care and overall safety.
These fears may well be unjustified, as experience has shown following the closure of other institutions, but that does not mean the fears they express are disingenuous or purely self-serving.
Nor do devoted elderly parents and other family members deserve to be accused of fighting to save some sort of vile, abusive hell-hole. They are fighting because they believe with all their hearts, and from everything they see during frequent visits, that their family members are happy, safe and well cared for, and won't be as safe or well cared for elsewhere. Again these fears may prove baseless, but who can say for sure?
Alternatives to institutions have not exactly turned out to be the unfettered good that reformers of the 1980s hoped. For many people with intellectual disabilities and psychiatric issues, institutions have simply been replaced by jail, grim boarding houses or homelessness, while small group homes can be micro-institutions in which abuse, neglect and regimentation are commonplace.
And the warm welcome from the community that advocates predicted would greet disabled people freed from institutions has in many cases failed to materialise, leaving many lonely and isolated.
Institutionalisation is no longer the answer, but nor is it the sole source of all evils. Having, in truth, won this particular ideological battle some 30 years ago, perhaps it's time modern-day disability advocates moved on from fretting about historical injustices to focusing more acutely on current ones?
Sue O’Reilly is a freelance journalist and the mother of a son disabled with cerebral palsy