Category Archives: Health

uniting to fight loneliness

A new project unites people at opposite ends of the age spectrum – individuals who are among the most excluded groups in society (photo: Anchor Hanover).

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.

I’ve just written about a new project that does just this, for Byline Times. Older people at The Beeches in Leatherhead, Surrey, a home run by housing and care charity Anchor, and pupils from Woodlands School meet weekly for singing sessions run by Intergenerational Music Making (IMM), a local community interest company.

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.

Different is good

I’m really pleased that my first piece of 2020 is for the much-needed Positive News magazine, on challenging stereotypes about neurodiversity.

It features amazing people talking about how thinking differently because of autism, dyslexia, dyspraxia and ADHD can contribute to success – and what we all miss out on by ignoring this.

The extract above features Alice Hewson, who is dyspraxic, describing the advantages of thinking differently (photograph by Owen Richards).

Regular readers will notice a link between the subject matter and my upcoming book, Made Possible

The print edition of the magazine is out now and the article will be online later this month (positive.news). Amid the current news agenda, it’s a welcome look at all things uplifting and positive.

simon baron-cohen interview

 Simon Baron-Cohen: ‘Brains come in types, and they’re all normal.’ Photograph: Graeme Robertson/The Guardian

I recently interviewed Simon Baron-Cohen, a world-leading expert on autism, for the Guardian.

His latest research reflects the huge gulf between advancements in awareness and research and real, practical improvements to people’s lives.

Such findings from the Cambridge professor and director of the university’s influential Autism Research Centre add more weight to existing evidence about the significant challenges facing autistic people. Diagnosis can take years; children face cuts to special educational needs provisionjust 16% of autistic people had jobs in 2016 (compared with 80% of non-autistic people); and they are among those locked up in secure hospital-style units instead of living in communities. The Autism Act a decade ago obliged the government to create a strategy to improve support, but legislation has fallen short of promises.

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.”

I also spoke to Baron-Cohen about criticism of and controversy about some of his theories. Notably, his “extreme male brain’ concept, outlined in his provocative book, The Essential Difference. This describes men’s brains being wired for systemising and women’s for empathising. This led to criticisms of “neurosexism” and gender stereotyping which could risk misdiagnosis or under-diagnosis of autistic women.

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 non-autistic people.

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”.

You can read the piece in the Guardian here.

As a disabled Asian woman, I’ve had to fight for my independence

 Gazala Iqbal: ‘The government needs to ask disabled people what they want.’ Photograph: Christopher Thomond/The Guardian

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.

Read the full story in the Guardian

BOOK Cover reveal!

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. 

Click here to find out more about Made Possible and click here to pre-order a copy and be named on the supporters’ list in every edition of the book.

erica is alive today thanks to a specialist learning disability doctor

 Erica Carlin, a woman with multiple learning difficulties, who doctors had written off. Photograph: Andy Lord

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 HandleyJoe Ulleri and Oliver McGowan reflect the inequality.

Research shows that GPs lack confidence with learning-disabled patients and that most get less than a day of training. Learning disability nurses support appropriate treatment and care plans, but figures from NHS Digital show that the number of learning disability nurses has fallen from 5,368 to 3,247 – a staggering 40% – between May 2010 and April 2018.

And I love the photo of Erica (by Andy Lord) and the way it features so prominently both online and in the print edition.

You can read the full report here.

‘People with learning disabilities must be put at the centre of their care’

Sheila Hollins with her son, Nigel, who is now a Beyond Words adviser and runs one of the Surrey book clubs. Photograph: Martin Godwin/The Guardian

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.”

Read the full interview in the Guardian

Reports and reviews on repeat

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:

Abuse of learning disabled people won’t stop until we all matter equally

You can’t rehabilitate someone into society when they’re locked away

[eight] years on from Winterbourne, why has nothing changed?

Why is it OK for politicians to ignore people with learning disabilities?

We must stop learning disabled people being dumped in waste bins of life

Why did Connor Sparrowhawk die in a specialist NHS unit?

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

Institutions – in all but name

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).

Today. 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).

Campaigners have drawn attention to the fact that this new target essentially extends the original one.

Inpatient conditions for learning disabled people are also in the spotlight with a forthcoming government-commissioned review into restrictive approaches to learning disability care. In addition, similar issues are the focus of the parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights, which has recently been examining conditions in learning disability units.

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.”

The rush 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.” 

Another risk, 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.”

  • Read the full story in today’s Guardian

Happy Christmas 2018

My youngest sister Raana (left) – cheers and merry Christmas and a happy new year!

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.

There’s been a welcome focus in the media recently on learning disability, thanks largely to the determination of campaigning families, but there’s a huge amount left to do. People are still subjected to inequalities in health, housing, employment and attitudes, 2,350 autistic and learning disabled people are still stuck in “assessment and treatment centres” – despite the government’s long-standing promise to move them into proper housing in communities.

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.