Launch of Learning Disability England June 14th 2016

It was an exceptionally showery June day in London when Learning Disability England was launched in the House of Lords. And what a tremendous event it was. Chaired by the inimitable Gary Bourlet, and attended by a fantastic number of self advocates (and others) from across the country. The message – we – self advocates, families and service providers – are stronger together. And boy, do we need that voice now. Gary Bourlet puts it well here

Our host was Baroness Sheila Hollins, and she was joined on the platform by another redoubtable House of Lords campaigner, Jane Campbell. Jane’s speech was especially memorable, on an exceptionally memorable day. I liked ‘We are not vulnerable, we just find ourselves in vulnerable situations’. And, momentously, she acknowledged something people associated with self advocacy have been saying and thinking for many years, that the early disabled people’s movement, of which she was a leading light, failed to acknowledge the voice and different experiences of people with learning disabilities. She promised this will change.

A minute’s silence for all those who have died in Assessment and Treatment Units was incredibly moving. And, personally, I was delighted that my dear old friend Jackie Downer was one of a number of self advocates who were awarded lifetime membership of LDE.

As ever, I was prompted to thnk about the historical context. A united voice for people with learning disabilities in England (unlike Scotland and Wales which both have national People Firsts) has been a very long time coming – and, although I hope to be proved wrong, I am not sure it is here yet. I remembered a conference back in 1994 which sought to set up a national People First in England. Held in an anonymous hotel in Daventry, of all places, one man and one woman from every town or county was invited. Many places responded. Some delegates had never been out of their home towns before, let alone to a national conference, whilst others, like Lloyd Page, Nigel Lott and Ian Davies were experienced campaigners. Another amazing time observing self advocacy at work, one of so many I’ve been privileged to experience in my life. It was a harmonious occasion, and was crowned with a visit from John Bowis, then a minister (in a Tory Government) who offered £50,000 (as I recall) to set up a national organisation. Hard to believe it, but I saw and heard this. Unfortunately, there was one large and well established self advocacy organisation who refused to play ball. And the initiative foundered. Until today, that was as near as we have come to a united voice for self advocacy in England.

But there were significant absences yesterday too. Mencap, the self proclaimed ‘Voice’ of learning disability, was not represented. And I saw few National Forum members, although leading members of the National Valuing Families Forum were there. Is this ominous? I really hope not. As I said, this united voice really is needed, and it is to the credit of all involved that it has got this far, with many well wishers. If you agree with me then do join. LDE will need all our help and support as it seeks to establish itself. I really wish us luck.


Why should academics support Learning Disability England?


Learning Disability England launches in June, next month. It is a broad coalition of people and organisations, led by self advocates, who believe people with learning disabilities and their families need a loud and effective voice. This is why I think academics need to be involved.

Back in 2015, I answered a call Simon Duffy put out challenging academics to rally round the Learning Disability Alliance. I offered to help. It has taken a lot longer than I thought possible, but now we are ready to launch a network of academics to support LDE.

Of course, this is not new. A lot of academics have already been active supporting families and people with learning difficulties to fight for justice, particularly the Justice for Laughing Boy campaign (#justiceforLB). The Network is a way of getting more people involved, supporting a broader range of campaigns. Without doing too much advertising over 30 people have signed up to these principles:

1.       We will do everything we can to uphold the UN Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities
2.       We will argue for a fairer share of resources for disabled people 
3.       We will seek to promote teaching and research which is likely to be of value to people with learning disabilities and their families; and to share research in ways that are accessible
4.       We will take every opportunity to listen to and understand the concerns of people with learning disabilities and families to find out how we as academics can best support them.


Why am I excited about this development?

There are two reasons.

The first is a negative impulse. I have watched in despair as so much that we fought for since the 1980s vanishes. The list is long. The closure of institutions, financial provision for families and people with learning difficulties, a broad consensus that these are people who deserve support, self advocacy groups, individual budgets, all in danger. Whereas once, young people with learning difficulties could expect to have help in finding a home on reaching their twenties, now they are forced to stay with families – or, if ‘challenging’, in danger of being taken off into the uncaring care of ATUs and similar. Families are either unsupported or kept at a distance. And people are dying, because of (proven or suspected) negligence. Connor Sparrowhawk, Thomas Rawnsley, Nico Reed, and many others who die prematurely because they do not get top quality timely health care.  What can I do to help? The Network is part of my answer.

Secondly, and this is a more upbeat message, I am excited about the possibilities of bringing academics into dialogue with self advocates and families. If I am known for anything, it is probably championing ‘inclusive research’, research where people with learning difficulties are equal partners, in deciding what questions to ask, and how, in working alongside researchers to do the work, and share it. The advent of LDE opens up the possibility of taking this further. If we, as academics, can work with self advocates and families, we stand a chance of identifying shared research priorities. In a way that has rarely been achieved since Mike Oliver called for ‘emancipatory’ research controlled by disabled people in 1992, I can see the potential of the agenda being set by self advocates, and families, with academics advising, helping to get the funding, and working in partnership to actually do the research. It is rather like Knowledge Exchange, which has brought academics and business together for mutual benefit. I dream of something similar working for social change.

What might we do?


Gather evidence about what is happening and share it on the LDE website.

Encourage students to make contact with self advocates and families, hear their concerns and perspectives

Support students to work in collaboration with self advocates on projects and dissertations.

Argue for a change in culture so that is seen as the way we do things to work in partnership with people who might benefit from research

Summarise research findings on topics that matter to people with learning difficulties and families in plain English, share via the website and LD ELF.

Share expertise in creating easy read information

Analyse data (a la Chris Hatton Blog) and share

Join specific campaigns as advisors


If you are a student, a researcher, a teacher in higher education and want to join us? Just get in touch with me via email –


#7daysofaction Why History?

I felt like a murderess. I really felt I had condemned him to death. And that was when I threw myself into Mencap heart and soul. I thought I must fight for all those who are in the community because perhaps parents won’t have to undergo this trauma in the future if we can improve services in the community. I won’t give up until I die.

This was Rene Harris, a founder of Luton Mencap Society, speaking to me about her decision to put her adolescent son, Colin, into Bromham mental handicap hospital in 1954.

There are uncanny echoes of Rene’s words in this blog, written by Paula Rawnsley for #7daysofaction in 2016:

I asked for help. How I wish that I never had asked for help now. How I wish darling Thomas I had kept you by my side and never let you go…. I’ll never forgive myself. I can’t live with the knowledge that I left him there in their hands.

Unlike Rene’s son, Colin, Thomas did die. His case will be the subject of an inquest. And like Rene, though using different media – Twitter and Facebook rather than fetes and coffee mornings – Paula is campaigning in #7daysofaction so that others do not have to undergo the trauma.

The parallels are striking. An adolescent boy, a family asking for help to manage him as he struggles to come to terms with growing up. And the response, at a distance of 60 years, is to put the young man away, cut him off from family and all that is familiar.

In this blog I explore those parallels, and ask whether there is hope.

The week beginning 18th April 2016 was designated a week to really push home the message that 3000 citizens are detained in Assessment and Treatment Units across England; and that this must end. It’s a campaign spearheaded by families, like Paula Rawnsley, whose relatives are (or were) in these Units. Each day a new harrowing story of an individual who, because of the absence of support and understanding for them and their families at key points in their lives – often adolescence – found themselves taken away  from all that was familiar, and placed in a sterile environment, frequently miles from their homes, where relatives need permission to visit.

How can this be? In 2010, I along with many others, celebrated the final closure of Orchard View, the ‘last learning disability hospital to close’. Despite the shortcomings of ‘care in the community’, it was an important landmark. Yet, even then, I knew this was not the end of institutions. It was just that it was the last NHS hospital to close. Except it wasn’t because as hospitals closed Trusts were busily building units on the campus to house the people they could not be bothered to support elsewhere. One of these I visited, on the site of St Ebbas Hospital Surrey. It housed people who, in their frustration tore down curtains, damaged furniture, behind closed doors and high wire fences. The TV was high on the wall. There were no carpets, just bare floors and equally bare furniture. As researchers we were not welcomed. And then there is Calderstones, housing over 200 people. Its closure has recently been announced a decade after its first closure. How many closures can any hospital need?

It is families who are leading #7days of action. Families have long been the driving force to close institutions. It was Judy Fryd who, in 1946, took the first step of a movement which continues to this day. She published an appeal in Nursery World to hear from other parents in her situation, alone at home with their ‘mentally deficient’ child. She started a ball rolling which eventually created the organisation we know as mencap. Rene Harris, whom I quoted above, was inspired by Judy Fryd. Mark Neary is the spearhead of #7daysofaction. His son spent a year in an ATU, following a short spell in respite when his dad needed to go into hospital. His Local Authority, reacting not to Steven’s distress at being plucked from everything he knew and made him feel safe, but to some higher order imperative, announced that Steven needed secure accommodation. And Mark had a devil of a job to get him back.

Each heart rending story is different. But there are obvious trigger points. Frequently, as young people with autism and complex needs get into their teens, not only do they struggle with the changes associated with adolescence, they also begin to face the truth that their lives will not be like those of their siblings. They will not leave school get a job, go away to Uni or College, they are unlikely to get a girl or boyfriend, their lives will probably be sheltered and limited. There is a reaction, a change in behaviour, often violence or depression. The family asks for help. No help is forthcoming. Other than the offer of a place in an institution. In the 1950s the advice given to Rene Harris, and many others, was ‘put him away and forget about him’. Now it is more subtle – ‘assessment’, ‘treatment’, beguiling terms which give hope to embattled families. But the result is the same. The young person is removed, often triggering a further round of ‘challenging behaviour’, which is not understood as a response to traumatic separation, but is seen as a further justification to keep the person detained. And the family is left, regretting their decision to comply, but now the situation has gone beyond their control.

A further parallel with earlier parent struggles is the determination of the authorities to deny families access to relatives. In the days of the long stay hospitals this was done by placing people in distant often rural sites, with poor public transport. Visiting times were limited to half a day once a month. Families were prevented from seeing the wards. Mail was censored. Home leave was often denied even at Christmas.

Has much changed since? Not much as far as the stories in #7daysofaction are concerned. Almost half of the people detained in inpatient services are more than 50 km from their homes. Families face long journeys. Their access to their relatives is restricted. Home leave is often denied:

Just before Christmas 2015, Nina Ni, went to visit her son, Tizane, in the ATU he is currently being detained in. Tizane had been unsettled for days. He had repeatedly asked to spend some time at home over Christmas but this had been refused by the Responsible Clinician.

In the past, the belief that learning disability was inherited gave professionals confidence in denying families access. Now the argument is that as adults people have the right to choose whether to see their families – and all too often, as Sara Ryan’s painfully documented account of her son’s detention and death in the Slade Unit in Oxford shows, professionals choose to believe that the choice is not to see them. The result is the same. Families kept at arm’s length, sometimes with disastrous results, as in Connor Sparrowhawk’s case.

There are differences too. To our shame, little is known about death rates in mental handicap hospitals, but some sampling suggests they were high. Undoubtedly many people died prematurely in institutions, from accidents, and pre antibiotics, from infectious disease. Too many young people, like Thomas Rawnsley and Connor Sparrowhawk have died whilst detained in modern institutions. Without their families’ ferocious campaigning these deaths might have been swept under the carpet. But, thanks to social media and those same families, we know about them. The closed doors are not quite as closed as they were.

Is there hope? I think so. Families coming together in campaigns such as #7daysofaction is probably the most significant development in learning disability for decades, since Mencap lost its way, back in the 90s. These families are leading a loose but powerful alliance of people, to put continuous pressure on a resistant and complex system, to hold the NHSE Transforming Care Team to account for their actions. And to use the appeal to our common humanity to garner wider support, from press, media and the public. What next? We can’t let up. Media attention is brief unless fed with new stories. We can all help to keep the media beast fed, to keep those 3000 detainees in the public eye, until they are brought home, and those Units closed.


Rene Harris’s words are from a chapter I wrote with her in a book called Witnesses to Change, edited by Sheena Rolph, Dorothy Atkinson, Melanie Nind and John Welshman, and published by BILD in 2005. It is a great resource for anyone interested in families, learning difficulties and history


Making choices about contraception – or not

Contraception for women with learning disabilities is a controversial and little discussed topic. The silence is an overhang from the days when people were segregated to prevent their becoming parents. We don’t need to go to those lengths now we have the technology to prevent conception.

But of course things have changed. Now we have bold statements like this one from Valuing People Now published in 2009:

People with learning disabilities have the choice to have relationships, become parents and continue to be parents, and are supported to do so.

And the 2006 UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD), ratified by the UK in 2009, also upholds disabled people’s rights to found a family and to decide on the number and spacing of their children (Article 23).

In practice it is far less simple than this. Michelle McCarthy found that the women she spoke to typically had ‘just in case’ contraception, even if they were not in a relationship; started contraceptive use earlier and continued it later than other women; and had little agency in the decision to use contraception in the first place, which type to use, and for how long.

I have never forgotten reading, courtesy of John Pring that the women who were systematically raped by Gordon Rowe, the proprietor of the LongCare residential home in Buckinghamshire, were given injectable contraception in the lavatory off the reception area every month while the GP chatted to Rowe. And I was shocked when interviewing a GP in leafy Oxfordshire to be told that she had discontinued her predecessor’s practice of visiting local residential homes to administer contraception to all the female residents. This was in 2012. Good for her, but how many other GPs do what her predecessor had done? We have no way of knowing.

A team at the Open University pursued the question about contraceptive choice. With the financial support of the Open Society Foundations, we interviewed 19 women who had the label of learning disability and who were using, or had used contraception. Finding them was difficult. Most agencies we approached, and this included advocacy organisations, declined or failed to respond. It was only through finding two organisations where managers recognised this as important that we could find women to approach for an  interview.

Our other challenge as researchers was that women frequently were taking contraceptives to manage menstruation, and did not recognise that they were using contraceptives. Nor did they necessarily know which contraceptives they were using.

Whether they had made choices about using contraceptives was a moot point. Some women clearly had made informed choices, and described declining to use them when they were not in a sexual relationship. But for many there was a mixture of persuasion and threat, expressed well in this quotation:

I never want children, would be too hard for me and social worker would take them away.

Several women who were using contraceptives to manage periods reported that they were ineffective – but had never had the opportunity to report this to their GP, and request an alternative.

Overall, it was a pretty bleak picture, and one which raised almost as many questions as it answered. It certainly suggested that those bold statements about rights cannot be taken at face value. And for me it raises questions about the contribution long term, and rarely reviewed use of contracption might be making to the low life expectancy of women with learning disabilities – 60, as reported in the Confidential Enquiry, even lower than that of men with learning disabilities.

You can read the report in full here, including references to the research base.

Open University Report into Contraceptive Choice




Families, learning disabilities and the state

Today family members and self advocates and other people who care about people with learning disabilities travelled to Southampton in driving rain in the hope of seeing justice done, for Laughing Boy and for the many others who have died unexpectedly, and without proper investigation at the hands of an uncaring NHS organisation. The justice has not yet arrived. I believe that it will.

After much deliberation I did not join them. I could not face the early start, and the lengthy journey, around a choc a bloc M25 on a Monday morning. Instead I decided to use the time to try to say something useful. Here’s my attempt.

Sara Ryan’s courageous campaign has highlighted many shortcomings in the way people with learning disabilities are treated. One of these is the demonization of families who speak out, challenge, argue, and try to secure a better life for their relatives. She has been described more than once as ‘toxic’. Her courage has emboldened other families to describe their own treatment at the hands of professionals. On the face of it this hostility is mysterious. The social care system relies on families doing most of the caring. If they did not it would most certainly collapse. And, professionals should have the best interests of people with learning disabilities at the heart of everything they do. This is true also of most if not all families. So why the animosity? I don’t think I have an answer. I can show it has a long history.

In the early twentieth century there was no attempt to hide the belief that families were to blame. Mental deficiency was inherited, so it was believed, therefore it was legitimate to treat families with suspicion, and keep them at arms’ length. The ‘colonies’ in which many people were warehoused to prevent them having children were often in remote locations, hard to reach by public transport. Visiting hours were restricted to once or twice a month. Families never got to see behind the scenes, where their relatives lived. And outgoing mail was censored. What is less known is that when people were ‘ascertained’ as being ‘mentally defective’ but remained with their families, those families were kept under surveillance. Living with family was probably the situation for the majority of people, as it is today. Officials would visit once a month to check up on the families. There was a standard form to complete, issued by the Board of Control. It asked about the family’s income, the number of bedrooms, the cleanliness of the home, the ‘character and conduct’ of the defective, health, employment, leisure activities. It also asked about the ‘supervision and control exercised over the defective’. This included the question:

Is the general supervision sufficient to minimise the risk of marriage and the precreation of children?

Families were, in effect, expected to be jailers. If they failed in this, there was a likelihood that their relative would be removed.

The Visitors’ comments were sometimes quite sympathetic. They could recommend that some small material comfort was offered, a clothing grant, money for dentistry. But often they were highly judgmental. This comes from a form completed on a young woman in 1946.

She (the mother) was hostile and rude …. She is a foolish woman …

This language is not unusual.

After World War 2 there was a gradual change in the language used. It becomes noticeable that around 1950 pity rather than condemnation begins to creep into official language. ‘Poor little souls’ and the like. And there grew a recognition that families deserved support in caring, hence the growth of day centres, respite care, and residential facilities. There are some good stories from this period. Ann and Michael Tombs recalled that as Mencap activists they had direct access to David Clifton, Bedfordshire’s Director of Social Services in the 1970s,  and a lot was achieved. But more often families had to battle to be heard, and many services which, in today’s language, had been co-produced, with the active support of families, were gradually taken over by Social Services, and the sense of partnership was lost.

In the 1980s the advent of self advocacy ironically gave professionals and statutory services the perfect excuse once again to keep families at a distance. The argument that families had no place in decision-making for adults gained traction, and was underlined by movements like Citizen Advocacy which argued that people needed an entirely independent advocate who could help them stand up for their rights – including against over-protective families. At one level you can’t argue with this, but it set up an unhelpful dynamic, which has been exploited by Government, for example setting up 2 Forums in the wake of Valuing People, one for family carers, and one for people with learning disabilities. The two work together, but the split makes it more difficult to speak with one loud voice

At the same time Government accepted the arguments of the Disabled People’s movement for equal citizenship to be achieved through giving individuals budgetary control. Direct Payments and Individual Budgets were supposed to be a device to further the choice and control of people with learning disabilities – maybe even give them independence from their families. In practice, as Mark Neary’s  blog illustrates so well, they have passed the care manager job over to families. But, as Mark’s blog also illustrates, those families are under surveillance, and, if they appear to be failing to control their son, daughter, brother or sister,  are still in danger of having their relative removed, with precious little say in their destiny. That shocking photo of the young child standing at the gate of the Assessment and Treatment Unit trying to speak with his older brother which trended over Christmas is not so far removed from the treatment of ‘Emily’ a patient in Leavesden Hospital in the 1940s. Emily had a young son – he was the reason she was incarcerated. Emily’s mother pleaded to be permitted to take the boy into Leavesden to see his mother. She was refused – on the grounds that it would not be good for him to know his mother was a ‘mental defective’.

What I have been trying to show here is that animosity to families has a long history. The Laughing Boy Campaign shows that it is still disastrously present. Staff in Slade House did not listen to the family’s concerns about their son’s epilepsy. They kept the family at arms length, and condemned Connor’s mother. He died. This behaviour would not have been out of place in the mid twentieth century. I still do not understand why.

Challenging local cuts – some key legal questions

extremely helpful, Steve, and essential reading for campaigners, Jan


Following the political choices set out in the recent Spending Review, it would seem inevitable that local authorities are going to need to make cuts to important services next year, including those provided to children and disabled people. Recent Kings Fund analysisshows that the 2% precept on council tax is a totally inadequate solution to the funding crisis for adult social care. No-one seems to be talking about what the Spending Review means for children’s social care, which wasn’t even mentioned on the Department for Education press release – but it is unlikely to be good news.

The issue now is not whether there should be cuts, but whether the cuts which have to be made are lawful, both in terms of their effect on services and those who use them and the process by which the decisions were made. As Mr Justice Blake said in R (Rahman) v Birmingham…

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Report finalisation and the National Death Service

This seems impossible to believe, but sadly it is true


While writing about Devon days, life, loss and inhumanity yesterday evening, I received this email from NHS England:

Report finalisation:

Following a series of comments regarding the accuracy of methods of reporting to national NHS incident reporting systems, as set out in the Mazars report, Mazars have made some further amendments to their report.
We have been working towards a date of publication w/c 7th December. However, this is now not possible. There is a meeting being scheduled for the 11th December, with Mazars and NHS England national team to agree publication date and process.
This will include the planning for support for families, who may seek information post publication.
ERG will be sent final report ahead of publication, together with the communication handling plan.
Kind regards

ERG stands for Expert Reference Group.
WTAF stands for What the Actual Fuck?

Er, why has the…

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Disability and Impairment: A Technological Fix

This was the title of a great Conference at the London Metropolitan Archives on Friday 27th November. LMA have done a lot of work on disability history including running FREE Conferences, of which this was one. It’s a welcoming atmosphere, inclusive of students and experienced academics alike. They deserve to be congratulated.

Speakers’ interpretation of Technology was pretty broad. It encompassed the 20 year old Campaign for the Disability Discrimination Act, highlighted by Tom Hayes from SCOPE, and the portrayal of disabled people in eighteenth century England (Simon Jarratt), as well as what I usually think of as technology, namely gadgets and apps, (Peter Fuzesi), representation of disabled people in cinema (Richard Reiser) and in photography (Ian Jones-Healey).

Gin Lane.jpg

Simon Jarratt’s talk analysed images including Hogarth’s Gin Lane for their depictions of disabled people. Fascinating


In this blog I want to highlight two issues which stand out for me on reflection. The first is the question of what makes for effective campaigning. Tom Hayes posed this question, intimating that the old fashioned graft of filling envelopes and chaining oneself to railings in the company of others was more effective in creating campaigning communities than the modern practices of tweeting, blogging, and Facebooking. It is a question I’d been pondering as I struggled to write an academic paper on the Changing Face of Parent Advocacy, comparing the local Societies which characterised the grassroots of Mencap’s predecessor organisation, the National Association of Parents of Backward Children, with the blogs and pretty continuous tweeting of the campaign for justice for Connor Sparrowhawk for example. I have some sympathy for the view that the old methods might reach more deeply into the communities they need to reach than social media which, particularly for older generations, is an alien world. Only time will tell.

The other issue is the question Sue Ledger, Vicky Ackroyd and I posed in our paper ‘How come we didn’t know this happened?’. Why does it matter that people with learning disabilities, their families, and their allies, know about the history of learning disabilities? We were recounting the work we are doing with Access All Areas to help their actors understand the history of institutions, so that they can in turn share this with other people in London through drama. It was one of these young actors whose quote ‘How come we didn’t know this happened?’ gave us our title.Prudhoe Nov 2011

Do people with learning disabilities now need to know about the old mental handicap institutions?

Even though I have made my name and even a modest living through researching and publishing about this history, it is still a question that troubles me. I have lived through an era when delabelling was all the rage, labels were blamed for many of the ills experienced by people with learning disabilities. But studying this history implies identifying with the label, and being interested in what happened to people with similar labels in the past. This sits uneasily with policies of inclusion and integration, which say we are not defined by our label. Other groups – LGBT, for example, or women – have fiercely argued to record and own their own history. People with learning disabilites have not made these arguments. I’m still not sure whether they should be encouraged to do so.


Mencap’s Annual Rix Lecture

Last night I attended Mencap’s second annual lecture in the name of Lord Rix. It was a thought provoking occasion, about the representation of people with learning disabilities in the media. Two speakers, John Harris, Guardian journalist, whose 9 year old son has autism, and Sarah Gordy, one of very few actors with Downs Syndrome to make it onto mainstream TV.

A few things have stayed with me. One is the statistic that almost a third of adult social care spend is on people with learning disabilities, but they rarely feature in discussions about social care, which mostly assume it is all about older people. How can we change that? We need to because, even though the Spending Review has released Councils to raise more money through Council Tax, there is no guarantee that they will use it for adult social care, and anyway it is not going to be enough.

Another is John Harris’s view that learning disabilities is the final frontier when it comes to civil rights. No longer is it acceptable to ‘Black Up’ like the Black and White Minstrels. But it is Ok to have non disabled actors playing disabled people (Eddie Redmayne playing Stephen Hawking) or autism (Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man) or learning disabilities. I was not quite sure what I think about this. If these films had had little known actors, albeit disabled, would they have had the same huge audiences. I very much doubt it. Is the end justified by the means?

I also pondered that issues relating to people with learning disabilities are not necessarily the same as for other groups who have beem misrepresented. Some people, however benign the media, however advanced the technology, will not be able to represent themselves. Other people will always need to speak for them. So we may be just arguing for re-drawing a new frontier, including those who can self advocate in media representations, in blogging and tweeting, but still leaving others unheard and unheeded.

Good to be pushed to think about these things anew. The biggest question for me is, how do we get issues relating to learning disabilities discussed in a well informed way in the mainstream media. If we are ever going to change the world so that everyone is included, that has got to happen.


Towards a good life stalled progress

A rather wonderful nurse I know who has been working with people with learning disabilities since she qualified in 1972 said something that really made me think

I saw more improvement in the first 20 years of my career than in the second. 

Her view chimed with some ideas I had had which found their way into a book I published with Kelley Johnson in 2010, Towards a Good Life for People with Intellectual Disabilities. We wrote this because we felt that the great optimism about the potential for people with learning disabilities to take their place as fellow citizens, characteristic of the late twentieth century and culminating in Valuing People had stalled. 

We had both been puzzling as to why aspirations had not moved beyond an ‘ordinary life’ of visiting coffee shops and garden centres, swimming pools and bowling alleys, images of smiling people in sparkling kitchens, devoid of life.

Now, with retreat from the welfare state in full spate, we might be excused for nostalgia for those days. However, I make no apology for once more raising the question of why securing the citizenship of people with learning disabilities is so elusive. It is as if we have tried everything, institutions, community care, segregated services, inclusion, but none of them has proveD to be the magic bullet. Once there was a nice clear enemy, that was called institutional care. We believed, we really did believe, that if we got rid of those life would be better. Well, it probably was a bit better for most people, a lot better for some, and for some it was not better at all. I recall meeting 5 wonderful women on a visit to Ireland where they still have institutions. They had been resettled into the small town adjacent to the institution, Moore Abbey. After a year they had aksd to go back. wHy? I asked. The answer. They could not go out without staff, and even when they did go out there was nowhere much to go. Whereas inside Moore Abbey they could wander at will, visit friends, do hobbies, and generally lead a life that for them was a better life than ‘supported living’ on the outside.

This is not to say we should go back to institutions, far from it. But it is to say that we have been fighting the wrong enemy. It was not institutions, that were the problem, it was the underlying premise that people wth learning disabilities are somehow other and need special facilities. The replacements for institutions, Adult TrainingCentres, hostels and respite care equally represented special treatment for people whose lives were going nowhere. Then those facilities gave way to supported living, independent living, resource centres, individual budgets, and inclusion. And now? Cuts and delabelling for people who are classed as mild or moderate, with special facilities only for the people with more profound impairments – and the very real threat of incarceration for those who appear to present a threat to society. We are drifting back to a situation of neglect for many people, leaving families to cope until they give up.

So what is the answer – if there is any answer. I do believe that part of the problem is in the binary disabled / non disabled. It doesn’t make sense to divide the world in this way. Lots is invested in it, on both sides. Professionals who specialise in treating people who are so labelled, disabled activists who have done so much to challenge and change perceptions of disability, assessors from ATOS who are paid to draw an impossible line. The way things are going – see Chris Hatton’s blog – theGovernment  are doing some of this work for us, excluding people from the disabled label because is carries certain privileges, which simple poverty does not. But that simply redraws the line. 

Perhaps the battle needs to shift to the battle against inequality, the growing divide between haves and have nots which blights our society. To all according to their needs is an attractive proposition, and one which commands widespread support when it comes to the NHS. Those needs could be for 24 hour skilled support, maybe in a community like Camphill; they could be for company or someone to help with shopping. Or they could be for the certainty that although we don’t need it now, that support will be there for us, no strings attached, when we need it. The way the NHS works, indeed.

Maybe the battle needs to shift from securing a good life which for many equates to having a nice house, car, holidays, food, fun, to securing good lives for people, whoever they are, and which they define for themselves. Idealistic? Maybe. But so was the welfare state in which I grew up. It needs reinvention, not abandonment.