Category Archives: Health

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.

Bomb in my brain: new blog on living with a brain tumour

What’s it like living with a brain tumour?

My friend Jude Bissett can tell you – she first got the news in 2003 and has just launched a new blog about life with a brain tumour, Bomb in my brain. The site is pretty new, but it’s easy to see how Jude’s powerful and honest testimony of a life changing experience will be an important resource for others undergoing the same thing. And even if the issue isn’t something you’ve experience of, it’s an engaging and insightful read.

Jude explains: “I evaded writing about what happened for 15 years. Why? I don’t really know. It was in my head for all that time, usually safely in the background, largely ignored but with occasional flashbacks and incidents that forced it forward. And this time it’s back in a way I can’t ignore and the time feels right to document it, in part therapy, in part to have an accurate record and in part to help anyone else who may face a similar situation and be seeking clues as to what they might expect. Though it will only be clues, we are all different, we all experience life differently.”

Here’s a recent extract from September:

By the end of my “break” I am feeling basically back to normal. The summer holidays have been particularly long with glorious weather, it felt like they would go on for ever. Then before I know it, Posy has her birthday and I am due back at hospital for round two. No tears for me this time, not now I know the drill. I fair skip into the Colney Centre, ready for my spot in a comfy chair and a nice cup of tea from a McMillan volunteer. During the week I had a blood test done at my local surgery. As ever they found it difficult to squeeze much out of me but there was enough apparently for them to check my platelets which were excellent, thank you smoothies! They need to check the white count but they have a machine on site to do this.

My Portacath is used to get the blood and I am delighted it can be used both to get blood out as well as do the infusion, what a clever device, how smug I feel for getting it put in!After a few minutes the nurse returns. She is very sorry but they can’t proceed with my treatment. This news comes as an absolute shock to me, this is not something I thought would happen. It seems my white count is too low. It has to be over 1 and mine is languishing at 0.24. But I feel fine! What has gone wrong? What have I been doing wrong? I’ve had all the smoothies with spinach and seeds and other shite, why hasn’t that been good enough? “it’s just the treatment” the nurse keeps repeating. I don’t understand and I feel unaccountably upset. The nurse tells me they’ll defer me a week and my count will come back up. I should be pleased at the reprieve but I am fretful as I’ve plans to attend a good friend’s 50th at the end of the summer and I’m worried this will throw out my timing. But I calculate the next week will still be ok and I defer for the week and return home.

You can read more of this extract at Bomb in my brain by Jude Bissett and please share widely.

How a national scandal goes unnoticed

Tomorrow is the seventh anniversary of an event that reflects an enduring national scandal. A long-running scandal that doesn’t trigger public or political outrage.

I’ve written an opinion piece for the Guardian about this today.

On May 31 2011 BBC’s Panorama exposed the abuse of people with learning disabilities at the NHS-funded Winterbourne View assessment and treatment unit (ATU) in Gloucestershire.

There are around 1.5m learning disabled people in the UK, including my sister, Raana. But the general disinterest in learning disability means that tomorrow’s anniversary will not trouble the national consciousness.

Rewind to 2011, and Winterbourne View seemed like a watershed moment. The promise that lessons would be learned was reflected in the government’s official report [pdf], and in its commitment to transfer the 3,500 people in similar institutions across England to community-based care by June 2014. Yet the deadline was missed, and the programme described by the then care minister Norman Lamb, as an “abject failure”.

Since then, various reports and programmes have aimed to prevent another Winterbourne View. These include NHS England’s “transforming care” agenda, which developed new care reviews aimed at reducing ATU admissions.

Yet despite welcome intentions, government figures [pdf] for the end of April 2018 reveal that 2,370 learning disabled or autistic people are still in such hospitals. While 130 people were discharged in April, 105 people were admitted.

This month, an NHS investigation reflected how poor care contributes to the deaths of learning disabled people. It found that 28% die before they reach 50, compared to 5% of the general population.
Unusually, this “world first” report commissioned by NHS England and carried out by Bristol University came without a launch, advance briefing or official comment. It was released on local election results day ahead of a bank holiday. Just before shadow social care minister Barbara Keeley asked in the Commons for a government statement about the report, health secretary Jeremy Hunt left the chamber.

The most recent report was partly a response to the preventable death of 18-year-old Connor Sparrowhawk at a Southern Health NHS Foundation Trust ATU. The Justice for LB (“Laughing Boy” was a nickname) campaign fought relentlessly for accountability, sparking an inquiry into how Southern Health failed to properly investigate the deaths of more than 1,000 patients with learning disabilities or mental health problems. The trust was eventually fined a record £2m following the deaths of Sparrowhawk and another patient, Teresa Colvin.

Recently, other families whose learning disabled relatives have died in state-funded care have launched campaigns, the families of Richard Handley, Danny Tozer and Oliver McGowan to name just three. Andy McCulloch, whose autistic daughter Colette McCulloch died in an NHS-funded private care home in 2016, has said of the Justice for Col campaign: “This is not just for Colette… we’ve come across so many other cases, so many people who’ve lost children, lost relatives”. Typically, the McCullochs are simultaneously fighting and grieving, and forced to crowdfund for legal representation (families do not get legal aid for inquests).

To understand the rinse and repeat cycle means looking further back than 2011’s Winterbourne View. Next year will be 50 years since the 1969 Ely Hospital scandal. In 1981, the documentary Silent Minority exposed the inhumane treatment of people at long-stay hospitals, prompting the then government to, “move many of the residents into group homes”. Sound familiar? These are just two historic examples.

If there is a tipping point, it is thanks to learning disabled campaigners, families, and a handful of supportive human rights lawyers, MPs and social care providers. Grassroots campaigns such as I Am Challenging Behaviour and Rightful Lives are among those shining a light on injustice. Care provider-led campaigns include Certitude’s Treat Me Right, Dimensions’ My GP and Me, Mencap’s Treat Me Well.

Pause for a moment to acknowledge our modern world’s ageing population and rising life expectancy. Now consider the parallel universe of learning disabled people. Here, people get poorer care. Consequently, some die earlier than they should. And their preventable deaths aren’t properly investigated.
You can read the full article here.

Theatre project challenges attitudes to learning disability and autism

“I hope I can get them to think a bit differently, and then to help make things happen a bit differently.”

These are the words of Dayo Koleosho, an actor with the groundbreaking theatre company Access All Areas, describing what he hopes the public will gain from his new show, Madhouse re:exit.

I’ve just written about the project for the Guardian. It’s a show that has been developed and performed by autistic and learning disabled artists and it highlights themes of institutionalisation and isolation, and explores the past, present and future of social care.

The show, which I caught during its London run, opens at the Lowry in Salford on 17 May as part of the Week 53 festival and follows more than two years of research and development.

“As services are cut, people are becoming stuck at home and the isolating walls of institutions are being replaced by people’s bedroom walls,” says Nick Llewellyn, artistic director of Access All Areas. “The walls are still there but [they are] more hidden or societal rather than physical.”

All the images here are shot by photographer Helen Murray, and you can read the entire piece about this superb show over on the Guardian website.

Dayo Koleosho as The Eater, in Madhouse re:exit by Access All Areas (all photos by Helen Murray)

Dayo Koleosho as The Eater

Imogen Roberts as The Goddess]

DJ Hassan as The BIrd

DJ Hassan as The Bird

Cian Binchy as London’s Oldest Baby