Society is in the grip of a loneliness epidemic. Headlines regularly warn about the scale of this modern scourge, from describing how social isolation increases our risk of death, to lamenting Britain’s status as one of the most age-segregated countries in the world.
What command less column inches are the small-scale solutions. There is little consideration of how hyper-local schemes – when funded, publicised and replicated nationally – could tackle loneliness and shift perceptions about the most isolated people in the country.
Not only are the singers at opposing ends of the age spectrum (the youngest is five, the oldest is 90), they are from two of society’s most excluded groups: the adults have dementia or a disability or depression; the pupils have severe learning difficulties, complex needs or autism.
Uniting two such disparate groups for an hour a week at the care home has had astonishing results.
It’s a small, simple yet strong solution to the society’s most pressing issue – division. You can read the whole piece here.
Baron-Cohen hopes his centre’s recent findings will encourage better practical help (a lifelong support worker, for example) “so there’s a pathway from discovery in the lab through to changing people’s lives”. This is crucial because academics are often cricitised for failing to translate knowledge into practice. A 2013 report by the charity Research Autism questioned why studies to look at effective services or to fully involve autistic people. Baron-Cohen says: “The old style of doing research was, without [us] realising it, arrogant, in that the scientists thought up the questions and then did it. The new way is to involve people from the outset… to co-design the studies and check the relevance and wording.”
His theories have also been
challenged by autistic people who argue that they fuel the myth that they cannot
empathise. Autistic academic Damian Milton, a
lecturer at the Tizard Centre, University of Kent, says: “Simon’s a nice guy and
knowledgeable in a lot of areas, but the empathising and sympathising theory
suggests a lack of cognitive empathy, which many people in the autistic
community disagree with.” Milton’s double
empathy theory is a critique of Baron-Cohen’s, describing a mutual empathy problem between autistic and
In response, Baron-Cohen says that with empathy “we need to make sure it’s [moving] two ways”. He stresses that while autistic people may struggle to imagine others’ emotions, they feel emotion if others are upset (the distinction between cognitive and affective empathy).
He says of criticism: “Sometimes I have to spend a lot of time explaining what it is I’m not saying…people just take the headline and think I’m saying autistic people are macho and aggressive.” Baron-Cohen stresses that “equality between the sexes is very important”, adding that his research explores groups of males and females “on average”, adding “this is not about individuals”.
Gazala Iqbal, now 46, was overprotected at home and her sense of dependency was reinforced by patronising attitudes from health and social care professionals. One district nurse told Bradford born and bred Iqbal that she spoke really good English “for an Asian woman”.
Iqbal’s story is echoed in a story I’ve just written. The article is also based on new research by user-led charity Asian People’s Disability Alliance (APDA) into the barriers to independence for disabled Asian women. The report, Humare Avaaz (“our voice” in Urdu), follows 18 months of community research involving 90 women with a physical or learning disability, mental health issues, long-term condition or caring responsibility.
Ignorance of health and social care among families, APDA’s findings suggest, is compounded by professional assumptions. While the authorities are aware of the low or late uptake of services, the report states, they “appear content to presume that this is a choice made by ethnic minority communities”.
There are solutions. Bradford council is embedding a human rights approach into its social work. Over the last two years, the learning disability team has made support more accessible, encouraging engagement with the Asian community.
I’m thrilled to reveal the cover for my forthcoming book, Made Possible:
Thanks to the thoughtful and endlessly creative minds at Unbound for enabling me to be fully involved in the design process (aka ‘I’ve been an utterly pedantic pain in the arse’). I’m so delighted that the cover design and concept reflect the strong and positive aims of this book influenced by my sister.
I also have an update on the publication date – the book will now be published in May 2020. This may feel a long way off (and slightly later than the original earmarked date of February) but Unbound has good commercial reasons for choosing this date in the publishing calendar. It’s vital to me – and to the book’s contributors – that this anthology reaches as many people as possible, and there’s a much stronger opportunity for that nearer the summer months.
The publication date also means that the supporters’ list will now close at midnight on Tues 27 August so if you know anyone who wants to pre-order and support the book – and get their name in every single edition as a patron – they need to do it before the end of August.
Thanks again to you all for helping to make Made Possible happen – its themes of human rights, unity, inclusion and ambition (for the many – not the elite, privileged few) feel more important now than ever.
It’s not all about Boris Johnson – the UK’s first doctor specialising in profound and multiple learning disabilities will start work in a groundbreaking pilot later this year, as I report in today’s Guardian.
I spoke to Erica’s family, who told me her life was saved after a chance intervention from a specialist “intellectual disability” doctor who had trained abroad.
Erica’s experience has led to a pioneering project in her hometown of Hull in which a new specialist will be recruited by the local clinical commissioning group later this year. And campaigners say Erica’s story proves the need for a national network of similar specialists to help reduce the health inequalities experienced by learning disabled people.
An expert group, convened by former health minister and Liberal Democrat MP Norman Lamb, is researching this idea right now.
The group’s work is timely because of a growing focus on the entrenched health inequalities faced by learning disabled people. Autism and learning disability are priorities in the NHS long-term plan, and a recent NHS-commissioned review of mortality rates shows learning disabled people die earlier and are more likely to die in hospital than the general population. Recent inquests into the deaths of people including Richard Handley, Joe Ulleri and Oliver McGowan reflect the inequality.
I just did a Guardian interview with Sheila Hollins. The crossbench peer is one of the UK’s foremost authorities on learning disability and mental health but the says her greatest achievement is founding Beyond Words, a pioneering not-for-profit organisation that produces picture books to help people with communication issues. “Beyond Words is what I feel most passionate about because it’s about transforming people’s lives,” she says.
Its origins lie in Hollins’ use of pictures to interact with her son, Nigel, who has a learning disability. “He would roar with laughter at Laurel and Hardy [silent] films but didn’t put a word together till he was eight.” When Nigel was nervous about an adventure holiday, his parents drew pictures depicting activities like abseiling: “When we put things into pictures, he felt more in control.”
Thirty years on, Beyond Words has distributed or sold 100,000 copies of its 57 titles, which cover everything from relationships to surviving abuse. Each title involves 100 learning disabled people as advisers or authors. There are 60 associated book clubs with 350-400 members.
Nigel Hollins, now 47, is a Beyond Words adviser and runs one of the Surrey book clubs. He lives independently in a flat near his family with support from a personal assistant. His mother says: “People see Nigel in the shops, cafe or train station. He has a life in the community.”
The government’s care watchdog the Care Quality Commission, published an interim report today into the treatment of people wiht learning disabilities and/or autism.
The report calls for a review of how adults, children and young people are locked up, segregated, restrained, far from home (that’s right – a report calling for another report..and today’s publication is just the interim report).
The health secretary’s response is that such cases will be reviewed – so, another report then.
Rather than write another report on this, here are a few headlines from recent pieces I’ve worked on with families and campaigners that tell you all you need to know:
And on that last question by the way, the campaign #JusticeforLB fought for the answer.
Tomorrow, the BBC will broadcast an expose by Panorama on abuse of people with learning disabilities and autism in secure hospitals.
There is now such a huge amount of evidence going back decades – from media to official goverment reports – about what’s wrong with how our health and social care services support learning disabled and autistic people. And a ton more on what needs to happen.
On Twitter today, #notcomplicated was a popular hashtag among campaigners, showing what’s possible in terms of supporting people well and upholding their human rights. So if I was about to get involved in the next report, review, investigation, guidance, consultation document, toolkit, standard, benchmark, framework or remit for a ‘working group’ (list goes on..) in this area, I’d start right there.
*This post is based on my short Twitter thread earlier today
I love the photo, above, of Jamie Newcombe, taken by Martin Godwin for an article in the Guardian today.
Jamie, who has a learning disability, was once in a series of restrictive inpatient care units, including a stint in so-called “locked rehab” where he ended up with a broken arm (you can read more on his experience here).
Jamie is proof that people can thrive if supported in the right way.
The government’s long-stated ambition is to move the majority of learning disabled and autistic people from inpatient institutions like assessment and treatment units (ATUs) into community-based housing. This has been the goal of its transforming care programme, due to end in March (and actually care in the community has been the goal of successive governments for decades..).
Transforming care was launched after the 2011 Winterbourne View abuse scandal exposed the reality of ATUs. The aim was to move all inpatients into community-based housing within three years. That target was missed and progress on moving people from ATUs has been slow.
Transforming care is ending soon but there are still 2,350 people in ATUs and there appears to be no replacement for the national programme. Instead, last week’s NHS long-term plan included a new target (by 2023-24) to reduce the numbers in ATUs by half compared to 2015 levels (when there were around 3,000 people in such units).
have drawn attention to the fact that this new target essentially extends the
As ATUs rightly
fall out of favour, campaigners
fear more people will be discharged from them into care that could be equally
restrictive, like the sort of locked rehab unit that Jamie was in.
Jayne Knight has visited several locked rehab settings. Knight is an independent family advocate and founder of You Know, which helps people find community housing and care. She describes these “institutions in the community”: “There can be systems of going through one locked door after another. In some places, you are asked what is in your bag and it’s checked, people can still be restrained physically on the floor in their own homes.”
Knight recalls one six-bed facility for autistic people behind a padlocked gate at the end of a residential road, with two staff supervising each resident. She adds: “The number of people was overwhelming. There were narrow hallways and small rooms…It was noisy and the atmosphere didn’t feel calm. People shared bathrooms and so a very strict rota and timetable was in place to enable this.”
to move people from ATUs is likely to have negative consequences, says Steph
Thompson, managing director of Waymarks, a voluntary sector organisation
supporting people from hospitals into communities. Thompson says: “Pressure to
meet discharge targets is highly likely to have two unintended consequences.
One, is putting people at risk through unplanned discharges into the community.
The other, is step down or across into another ‘bed’. Both routes achieve the
discharge target but neither is good for the person.” She adds: “If you have a
performance target to meet as a commissioner and an agreed discharge date, it
can feel safer to move someone into a ready built unit with a vacancy, health
professionals and potentially a lock on the door. It fixes the figures. But
it’s not transforming care.”
says Lib Dem MP and former health minister
Norman Lamb, is the
revolving door of discharge and readmission: “There is a massive risk at the
moment driven by the nervous pursuit of a target and a recognition that they
have left it too late and if you rush to hit the target with time running out
then the risk is you cut corners, you can discharge people unsafely potentially
with the risk of them being readmitted or you discharge them to inappropriate
or unacceptable settings that don’t actually enhance their quality of life.”
Meanwhile, National figures on planned discharges reveal a marked rise in people moving from ATUs to “other” settings; from 160 transfers in March 2016 to 465 in October 2018 – that’s 20% of all 2,350 people. NHS Digital, which collates the statistics, does not collect information on what “other” settings constitute or on locked rehab or discharges into private placement.
Chris Hatton, Lancaster University professor of public
health and disability, says: “It’s hard to know where people are going,
what these ‘other’ places actually are, and whether people being moved notice
any difference from ATUs…without transparency, it’s possible to game the
statistics to make the ‘transforming care’ numbers look good while consigning
people to invisibility in places that feel very similar to inpatient units.”
The ultimate answer, says Gary Bourlet, co-founder of
campaigning organisation Learning Disability England, is that people need decent
jobs alongside good quality community housing “but there’s no national mandate
for driving this forward.”
Season’s greetings to everyone – this is me with my sister Raana, thanking everyone who’s collaborated on stories, projects and posts this past year – here’s to more of the same in 2019.
Big thanks also to all of you who’ve supported or helped publicise the crowdfunded book I’m editing, Made Possible, about the talents of people with learning disabilities. It’s
partly inspired by my sister, who has the learning disability fragile X syndrome, and aims to shatter the lazy stereotypes we have about learning disability.
Here’s hoping 2019 will bring more action, instead of just more rhetoric, as I’ve written before, and the people who have to spend the festive break in inpatient care are reunited with their families soon.