Newham, London: Powerhouse and Beverley Lewis House – Women with learning disabilities defending their rights

A colourful, square mosaic made from tiny pieces of tile. ‘Where you can find yourself’ is written around the edge of the square and the letters ‘BLH’ are in the centre.
  Mosaic made by residents at Beverley Lewis House. Photo thanks to Beverley Lewis House, part of L&Q

When

Newham, London

Where

1991 onwards

Newham is home to ground-breaking ways of dealing with domestic violence which have had a national impact. Domestic violence is a significant issue, with seven women a month killed by a current or former partner in England and Wales. Disabled women are twice as likely to face domestic abuse as nondisabled women.

…any incident or pattern of incidents of controlling, coercive, threatening behaviour, violence or abuse between those aged 16 or over who are or have been, intimate partners or family members regardless of gender or sexuality. The abuse can encompass, but is not limited to psychological, physical, sexual, financial, emotional.

Government definition of domestic abuse

A diverse group of women from East London gathered in the early 1990s to talk about issues that mattered to them – a subject often raised was domestic abuse. The group called themselves the Powerhouse. Power is an acronym which stands for Protecting Ourselves, Women with learning disabilities for Equal Rights.

By 1991 the group was meeting every week and discovered that domestic violence refuges were not set up to help women with learning disabilities.

If we could say what we really want, it would be a safe house, just for women with learning difficulties, with women workers and women counsellors, at a confidential address, where we could stay for a while and get strong by being able to talk about our experiences and learning to do more things for ourselves.

A member of Powerhouse

The women campaigned for a refuge that would be safe for women with learning disabilities, and argued that it must be diverse.

‘Black women are in the Powerhouse, disabled women, lesbians, mothers, Asian women and women without learning disabilities.’

East Thames Housing agreed to build the refuge and the Powerhouse women were involved in the planning and design, holding the architects to account and demanding to be listened to throughout the process.

Powerhouse remains at the St Luke’s Community Centre in Canning Town. One current Powerhouse member said, ‘I like to make decisions for myself’ and another says ‘we come here, because we like it.’

…the architects made plans about the actual design of how the house was going to be. We didn’t understand their writings and drawings so we gave it back and said… we needed things more in pictures. We asked them to make a model of the house so we could understand how the house was going to be. I felt more stronger… and more confident in bring the right things out of the architects to make them listen to women with learning disabilities.

Alison Hazel, Powerhouse committee member

Named in honour of Beverley Lewis, a young, Black, deaf blind woman who died in 1989, the house opened in 1995 and staff believe it is the only specialist refuge for women with learning disabilities in the UK.
Beverley Lewis House works hard to fulfil the original vision set out by the Powerhouse group. It has six self-contained flats for women who have either been abused or are at serious risk of abuse. Residents get holistic help from a specialist team who are able to support them in their transition from crisis to relative stability, developing coping strategies, confidence and life skills as well as offering art and drama therapy.

The staff team, therapists and behaviour analysts have provided consistency, hope, positivity, stability and warmth, throughout this difficult time.

Beverley Lewis House resident

If you have been affected by domestic abuse, you can call the 24-hour National Domestic Violence Freephone Helpline 0808 2000 247

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