Say the words “learning disability” to most people and they will probably think of headlines about care scandals or welfare cuts. That’s if they think of anything at all.
As I write in a new piece for Byline Times, the latest figures from NHS England show that more than 450 people who have died from the Coronavirus since 24 March were recorded as having a learning disability or autism. According to the Care Quality Commission, there has been a 175% increase in unexpected deaths among this group of people compared to last year.
Mainstream media coverage of the Coronavirus reflects a nonchalance. Give or take the odd exception, the reporting has failed to acknowledge the impact of the pandemic on the UK’s 1.5 million learning disabled people like my youngest sister Raana.
Outside of COVID-19, if learning disability issues hit the headlines, they usually reinforce stereotypes about “vulnerable people” unable to fend for themselves. And when a story makes the media, it rarely includes direct words from someone with a learning disability.
My sister has a learning disability and I can’t visit her because of coronavirus.
Coronavirus has made enforced separation a universal experience, but there are additional and far-reaching challenges for learning disabled people and their families. I cannot visit my youngest sister, Raana, who has fragile X syndrome and lives in supported housing in Hampshire. My family has no idea when we will next see her.
Social distancing, self-isolation and a lockdown for the over-70s will have a seismic impact on Raana (our parents are in their 70s, our father has a lung condition). My sister’s social contact is now limited to support workers paid to care for her and her learning disabled housemates. She uses text messaging but dislikes phone calls and writing letters.
Raana thrives on consistency and routine, including dance classes, baking workshops and weekly shopping. Yet coronavirus means services are closing and people’s movements are restricted. Online equivalents are not the same and do not always appeal if you have communication difficulties. What will happen if her trusted support staff fall ill or she has to self-isolate? What if she needs help with personal care?
The 1.5 million learning disabled people in the UK are already among society’s most segregated people. Communities must not forget them, as I write in this Guardian piece.
What makes an “ordinary life” for the UK’s 1.5 million learning disabled people? Having relationships, choosing where to live or when to go out? Things that most of us take for granted are often denied to people like my sister Raana, who has Fragile X syndrome, the most common inherited cause of learning disability.
With the right support and an enlightened attitude that’s mindful of people’s human rights, people with learning disabilities and autism can enjoy the things most of us take for granted. I wrote an opinion piece about this for the Guardian.
A new heritage project aims to dispel misconceptions about learning disability and the lives of people who lived in long-stay institutions. The charity CASBA (Citizen Advocacy South Birmingham Area) spent a year collating stories and archive material relating to Birmingham’s Monyhull Hospital. Myth and rumour about the hospital was rife; it was referred to as the local madhouse and the term ‘Mony’ was used as a playground insult at local schools. In what is Birmingham’s first learning disability heritage project, the free event From Institution to Community, runs on Saturday October 6th.
Guest post by Joe Peacock, heritage project coordinator, CASBA
Roland Clewley was 16 when he was first admitted to Monyhull Hospital, a long-stay institution for people with learning disabilities. It was 1966 and before Monyhull, Roland been in a pupil referral unit in North Wales for 18 months and had grown up in a care home in South Birmingham. He quickly grew to hate being locked up.
Roland spent almost 15 years in institutional care.
Roland says: “It was okay at first, but I wanted to get out, you see. I wanted my own place – a flat or something. I said that to them, but they said; ‘They’re all the same, just like you’ so I started running away.”
This was not the easiest thing to do, but he remembers: “I got through the window and then went down the pipes and ran off along the canal. It was dark down there and you couldn’t see what you were doing. We didn’t get very far, then we got picked up by the police. They put us in a van and put us in a cell for a few hours until Monyhull picked us up.”
Such attempts weren’t looked upon kindly by the hospital. Contrary to local myths, there was no alarm that went off when someone ran away, but they were punished on their return. “They put me in a side room. It was like a cell. It was a bare room with just sheets and blankets on the floor to sleep on. The first time, I did a week in there, then the next time two and then three weeks at a time.” He was let out to go to the toilet and to eat, but it was a severe punishment for someone who just wanted his freedom.
He was then sent to a stricter institution called Moss Side: “Terrible, that place was” he recalls; “You were locked in all the time. You could go out in the grounds, but there were walls all the way around – it was like a prison. I was there for nearly eleven years.” In fact, Moss Side was a high security psychiatric hospital and later merged with another similar institution to form Ashworth Hospital. Roland is reluctant to disclose much of his experiences there and it is hard to imagine how tough it would have been for him. Roland was then sent back Monyhull, and it must have been quite a relief in comparison.
“It was a bit better second time – it changed a lot. When we used to be on the ward it was a male ward and you’d have male staff, but the next time I was there it was all mixed – you’d got male and female staff working there.”
He also felt more optimistic that he would be allowed out with the increased emphasis on care in the community and deinstitutionalisation in the 1980s: “What else changed is that they were taking the patients out of there. Before, you don’t know how long you’re there for, or anything like that. I thought I was going to be there until I was about 80.”
He began to be given more responsibilities, helping the physiotherapist to get patients to appointments and was even paid for working with the porters; collecting laundry from the wards. Some of the porters befriended him and they would socialise as well as work together.
He was quite a decent sportsman, too, who won a snooker tournament and has a photograph on his wall of him being presented with the trophy to remember it by. There was a table in his ward and he’d play with anyone who was up for it or just practice on his own. He also played table tennis, football and was keen to try any other activities on offer.
Perhaps, one of the most surprising things he did, due to his close work with the physiotherapist was to go skiing in Italy. “Went for a week. I kept on standing up when I fell over all the time. You want to do it – it’s a laugh.”
Another way in which he’d try to beat the boredom of institutional life was to sneak off to the local pub, the Cartland Arms. More often, though, he remembers that they would smuggle cans of cider in from a nearby shop and sit in bed drinking those after lights out.
In 1980, he was moved out of the hospital into a hostel and then into a flat where he still lives. Ironically, for a man desperate to escape the hospital, his flat overlooks the site of the former institution he was in. Surprisingly, he continued going back to Monyhull to work with the porters them even after he’d moved out and right up until the time it was closed down and demolished. He retained his income, was fed and had a social life.
Now, in his late 60s, Roland seems happy enough with his life, although when I asked when he’d last been on holiday, he replied that it was 25 years ago. With limited mobility, he must be in danger of becoming more and more isolated.
The biggest shame of his life for me, though, is all those wasted years when he was locked away. With the right support and encouragement, he was capable of doing so much more.
• Joe Peacock is heritage project coordinator at learning disability advocacy charity CASBA
• CASBA’s From Institution to Commununity is at Monyhull Church from 1.30pm on Saturday October 6th and you can watch a trailer about the project here
As the Twitter screenshot above says, I’m on a break from blogging and tweeting so I can progress the book, Made Possible, a collection of essays on success by high achieving people with learning disabilities (yes, you read that right – this book’s all about shattering stereotypes!).
You can find out more about this crowdfunded collection of essays here which is being published thanks to some incredible support from its patrons (a list of supporters so far is available on this page if you scroll down to ‘supporters’).
Guest post by Ross Hendry, chief executive of Spurgeons Children’s Charity
New research, which we launch today, paints a picture of far too many young families struggling.
Parents with children under the age of 18 are increasingly anxious, according to Spurgeons’ Parent Report, and many feel that there is little support available.
The research shows half of parents worry their children have low self-esteem or are unhappy (46%) or are being bullied (46%)*; whilst 42% of parents think there is little to no support available from statutory, community or voluntary services to help with family challenges.
And it is many of the most vulnerable who are struggling the most. The ones who cannot or do not have a strong, stable and supportive network of family and friends to turn to. These are the families we work with, day in, day out – their children are among the 4 million living in poverty in the UK today. They are the families for whom support seems very distant and hard to attain just when their needs seem to be increasing.
What’s important is that families get the support they need when they need it. And that’s where charities like ours come in. Spurgeons Children’s Charity is driven by its mission to improve the lives of families and children who are struggling to cope; and to see every child given the chance of a hope filled future.
It is 150 years since we were first founded, but we still work at the heart of communities to improve the life chances of some of the most vulnerable children and families in England. Our focus is supporting families who struggle to support themselves through intervention and help that centres on the child.
The reality is, despite the immense wealth and opportunities for social mobility, life for some families is as tough today as it was when we were first established. Inequality today may look different; we may know more about causes and solutions; we may spend more time talking and writing about it; but it is still an enduring social and economic scar on our society.
We offer a range of different services across the country. For example, our 23 children’s centres support parents with young children to access the help they need, ensuring poverty and deprivation don’t become barriers to a better future. We work with local partners in communities with high levels of deprivation across the UK, supporting parents and their children from pre-natal stage up to the age of five.
When parents need to develop new strategies for dealing with issues; or they feel they maybe aren’t coping as well as they could, our support worker teams are there. Sometimes just to listen; but often to provide practical support and advice too. There are a range of parenting courses; opportunities to stay and play and a chance to meet and talk with other parents.
The chance to access peer to peer support can be invaluable and a life line for many parents who often feel alone. This is true for both mums and dads and we’re keen to recognise the important roles fathers play in their children’s lives. Our Saturdads project, which started in 2009 and worked with 89 dads last year alone, helps fathers develop stronger, positive relationships; build peer support networks; and generally build their confidence as a parent. Too often public funded services are portrayed as places of dependency when the reality is a timely intervention can be the route to flourishing, maturity and development for parents and children.
The Parent Report we publish today gives us an opportunity to compare the views of the wider parent population to our own insight. From parent feedback at our services, through to safeguarding reporting, we are able to draw out comparisons and identity some common themes. What we do know from the work taking place is that it’s not always easy for families to reach out.
All too often, parents are afraid to engage. For whatever reason, whether its concern over how they will be perceived, or feeling like they have somehow failed, we’re often the last place they turn. It’s not uncommon for us to be told by parents that they wished they’d reached out sooner. But the question we need to ask is ‘why aren’t they?’
We need our services, and those offered by others like us – from government, charities, schools and GPs – to be recognised as the safe and reassuring places we believe them to be. Where parents can take their children and be free from judgement at a time in their life when they need it most.
It’s only fair that we all accept some responsibility with this – if parents don’t feel that they can access the support available, what can we do differently to help them on their way? More awareness maybe; more accessibility for the isolated and hard to reach groups most definitely; but maybe it’s more than that.
In a world where they are so many expectations and pressures, living up to a perfect ideal can make a tough job even harder. From our part, we want to ensure there is always someone there to support families – especially those in greatest need – with good information, advice and meaningful support.
About the research All figures, unless otherwise stated, are from YouGov Plc. Total sample size was 1,842 GB parents with children under 18 years of age. Fieldwork was undertaken between 21st – 27 April 2017. The survey was carried out online. The figures have been weighted and are representative of all GB adults (aged 18+). * When asked about the three issues they are most concerned about for their children, either now or in the future.
Guest post by Tracy Fishwick, chief executive of Transform Lives
Leeds Community Homes is striving for a people-powered community housing revolution, placing the new organisation at the cutting edge of housing practice.
The not-for-profit group has raised £360,000 to invest in 16 permanently affordable homes through community shares (a type of share capital called ‘withdrawable shares’ issued by co-operatives or community benefit societies). With the first tenants due to move in by next April, the organisation’s #peoplepoweredhomes campaign is an innovative way to create housing developed by local people, to meet the housing needs of local people. The project wants to create 1,000 affordable homes over the next decade.
People-focused housing solutions are at the heart of the People’s Powerhouse event taking place next month. The housing group’s work in Leeds is the kind of positive story of local change that we hope will inspire delegates to recreate similar projects in their own communities. More good practice like this is vital at a time of chronic housing shortage, with housebuilding falling almost 100,000 homes per year short of achieving the government’s ambition.
You may have read about the People’s Powerhouse which was launched in February and originally billed in the press as “a rival ‘northern powerhouse’ conference to one that advertised 15 male speakers but no women and just 13 of all 98 listed speakers were women”.
Leeds Community Homes, Plus Dane Housing and my own company, Transform Lives, are just some of the organisations taking part. We hope the People’s Powerhouse will help create a dialogue about inclusive, good growth, and its potential to transform communities and lives across the North of England.
Other work worth replicating includes Give Get Go, which Transform Lives collaborates on with a group of housing organisations. The initiative supports social housing tenants into work – connecting unemployed people to employers through volunteering and mentoring, growing skills and confidence and creating jobs. Key to the project’s success is bringing civic institutions and leaders together for the first time to work collaboratively in Liverpool, including the University of Liverpool, Everton FC and the National Trust.
We also work with Plus Dane Housing on its Waves of Hope Big Lottery programme, which aims to tackle homelessness and other complex barriers to work. In just two years, the project has supported 236 people, 83% of whom say their rough sleeping has been reduced. And 67% report a reduction in substance misuse. Both Plus Dane Housing and our other partner, the University of Liverpool, will be showcasing this work at the People’s Powerhouse, underlining the difference we can make when we find good ways of working collaboratively and locally.
Our hope is that we will build a long-term movement for change that supports good and inclusive growth in the North with a particular focus on how people are the key to growth. The aim is to include all sectors and sections of the community, harnessing the combined skills and leverage of the public sector, voluntary, community, civic leaders and business.
As Lord Victor Adebowale, chairman of Social Enterprise UK and chief executive of social enterprise Turning Point, says: “’People’s Powerhouse’ perfectly reflects our vision for economic investment in the North of England.” Social enterprises often find innovative solutions to social issues and as Lord Victor, a People’s Powerhouse keynote speaker, adds: “We cannot allow anyone to be left behind. Investment in the North must be inclusive and must be used to support communities as well as businesses, adding value to the lives of real people.”
* The People’s Powerhouse event takes place on Wednesday 12 July from 10am-4pm at Doncaster Rovers Football Ground. For more information and to register see the website. Discounts are available including for young people and for small enterprises and charities.
These were among the issues discussed when I recently spoke to BA and MA students at Coventry University as a visiting lecturer. I was interested in what expectations and views people preparing to enter the world of social work had of the sector, and what had motivated their choice of career.
I have spent two decades working for central government, social care providers and now, as a PhD researcher at the University of Cambridge examining what quality of life means to people with learning disabilities in residential care. An advocate for disability sport, I also recently co-founded an inclusive dance company that provides disabled and non-disabled people with the chance to learn in an inclusive environment. In addition, I am guardian to my older brother who has autism. So I started by asking the student-filled lecture theatre to indicate if they had a relative with a disability. Almost everyone raised their hand.
I was struck by the maturity, insight, and engagement of the students I met. They wanted to work in social care because they see themselves as caring. But already so early into their careers, many had met with challenges and wanted guidance and support but were not sure how to access this.
I spoke about the duty of every individual to take ownership of better practice, and not to allow poor practice to happen around them by saying nothing. A student approached me during the break. She said she had witnessed physical abuse in a care home during her placement but she was so junior she felt unable to do anything. I advised her of the regulatory authority and how to report abuse confidentially but there was wider concern among students that in a tight-knit environment where staff know each other well and there is a culture of solidarity, it would be difficult to report poor practice without being identified and singled-out. There was an echo of support for one student’s view that one can feel disempowered to make a difference when the scale of the challenge seems so vast or as she put it: ‘what difference can I make when the system is so broken’.
Hearing comments like this, I was heartened by the students’ willingness to self-reflect on how they can make a personal impact on people’s lives in spite of the wider challenges. We discussed what quality of life and identity means for people with disabilities. I shared case studies of support workers and how they had enabled people to achieve their potential by making efforts to engage on a personal, individual level and thinking about what someone can do not what they can’t.
I spoke about my work around inclusive dance through Step Change Studios, which provides disabled and non-disabled people with the chance to learn in an inclusive environment, and the feedback from disabled people on what being active and participating in society on an equal platform means to them. I was really pleased to receive feedback which showed that students understood that inclusion was not simply about taking part in an activity but goes much deeper. As one student said: ‘The description of the woman with a disability who said as a dancer she could feel like a beautiful woman was powerful and made me realise that people with disabilities often don’t ever get to see themselves in this way’.
As another student commented after the lecture: ‘I was really struck by the way Rashmi spoke about social work becoming ‘transactional’ – this is my experience of how a lot of learning disabilities services are. Relationships happen, but the emphasis that managers have is ticking boxes.’
The students also asked for advice on how to cope with challenging situations and people, I reflected on what I have learned during difficult times: identify good people who can inspire you and don’t be distracted by negative people; focus on potential not obstacles; making a small difference is better than doing nothing; and look after your wellbeing because you cannot be of value to someone else if you do not value yourself.
* Rashmi Becker’s Step Change Studios is holding a ‘Strictly’ style competition at Stratford Circus, East London, today (Monday 24th April) with care provider East Thames involving people with learning disabilities. The event is being held in advance of the UNESCO International Day of Dance next Saturday, 29 April. Contact Step Change for more information.
* A previous post on wheelchair dance can be read here.
Seasons’ greetings – a brilliant bird in “Peace on Earth”, a painting created as part of outreach work to tackle social exclusion featured on the blog earlier this year. Go to the Facebook page to see some of the other striking images we used this year.