People with learning disabilities are human too – we must all demand change

Recently the BBC’s Panorama programme exposed appalling abuse of autistic people and people with learning disabilities at Whorlton Hall Hospital in County Durham. Despite political promises, it appears that nothing has changed since the Winterbourne View scandal eight years ago.

The parallels between these two cases are striking; in 2011, Panorama showed patients at Winterbourne View being pinned down, assaulted and bullied by staff who were entrusted with caring for them. Eight years on, a similar undercover investigation found residents of Whorlton Hall being needlessly restrained, physically and psychologically abused by care workers.

In 2012, the Department of Health committed to moving many more people with learning disabilities out of institutions, back into their local community and closer to their loved ones. Yet more than 2,000 are still in Assessment and Treatment Units (ATUs) or other inpatient provision. ATUs were intended to provide short-term secure placements for mental health treatment, but the average stay is over five years.

Successive governments have failed on the promise to ‘transform care’ for autistic people and those with learning disabilities. A lack of community-based services means people are stuck in institutions that are inappropriate for their needs. Patients are isolated from the outside world, governed by inflexible regimes and given little chance to express their own identities. Instead of building greater independence, this environment reinforces dependence and foments a culture of dehumanisation.

Policymakers deserve criticism for failing to deliver a transformation to a new model of person-centred care in the community. However there are deeper questions to be asked about how society views people with learning disabilities. Winterbourne View was horrifying, and yet the initial calls for action were quickly pushed down the political agenda. If voters remain ambivalent towards demanding an adequate social care system, the human rights abuses at Whorlton Hall will be quickly forgotten, and nothing will change.

Society is contributing to the attitudes exposed by Panorama. People with learning disabilities are ‘othered’, subconsciously deemed inferior in ways that justify lower standards of treatment. I have no doubt that there are many good, compassionate individuals working in the care sector. However, some staff don’t understand nor relate to the people in their care. Patients are sometimes treated like children, denied the freedom to make basic choices within a safe environment. In other cases, challenging behaviour is wrongly seen to represent malign intent. For example, autistic meltdown might be misinterpreted as a deliberate act of nuisance. This would be met by an angry response from staff who had failed to identify and alleviate the person’s anxiety trigger.

We must re-shape attitudes to bring about a much-needed culture change. After many years confined in institutions, resources should be redirected towards helping patients make the transition into the community, whether that be residential care or supported living. Investment in care workers is essential, both in terms of attracting suitably qualified and motivated people, but also delivering training to give them the right skills. Caring should be acknowledged as a skilled occupation, with professional registration and development opportunities.

Politicians will not act unless we demand change. It is time for us all to recognise that people with learning disabilities are human beings. They have their own fully-formed personalities and interests, likes and dislikes. They feel the full gamut of human emotions. They have dreams and ambitions they hope to fulfil. They are our equals. When this sinks into the public conscience, we can exert our combined influence so that the human rights of people with learning disabilities are finally protected.

Shropshire Disability Network, thanks Thomas for asking us if we can share his blog on our website

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