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.
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.”
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.
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.
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”.
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.
While imbibing a cup of coffee at the computer, my Twitter feed led me to an article in the Daily Mail with the strapline, ‘Babies with Down’s syndrome who are given green-tea supplements are less likely to develop facial disorders.’
Well, you could have knocked me over with a tea leaf. This was something. We always knew there was more that we could and should have done for our daughter 26 years ago when she was born with Down’s syndrome.
We had clearly missed a trick. The answer to stigmatisation, exclusion and discrimination lay in a tea bag. If only we had supplemented her diet with green tea, it all could have been so very different. Apparently, new research in Spain suggested: ‘Six out of seven Down’s syndrome sufferers … developed facial dimensions would have matched her healthy peers.’
Where to begin?
Sarah does not suffer from Down’s syndrome. She has the genetic condition, which affects her life in many ways, but if anyone has met Sarah and other children and adults with Down’s syndrome, ‘suffering’ would not be the word that comes to mind. Sarah’s oft repeated phrase, ‘I love my life’ would easily dispel that myth.
I’m also intrigued by the comparison with ‘healthy peers’. Does that make her unhealthy because of a genetic condition? Sarah does not have a disease. The article continued, ‘Researchers hope that normalising the facial features of Down’s syndrome may help to reduce the stigma patients experience.’
‘Patients’? ‘Stigma’? People with Down’s syndrome are not ill and the only stigma that they might experience is the publication of such articles, which perpetuates the stereotypical view of my daughter and others. Increasing the awareness and understanding of Down’s syndrome and the opportunities for people with the condition will do much more to reduce any stigma.
Sarah has facial features and physical characteristics that are more common in people with Down’s syndrome, but she looks more like us, her parents, than others with the condition. Her physiognomy remains unmistakably that of a young woman with Down’s syndrome and that’s who she is. Her Down’s syndrome is a part of her very being so we do not wish to take that away from her. We would only be changing the way she looks to make her features more acceptable to other people. In any case, her unique character is so prominent that her features become irrelevant.
Of course, supplementing diets is not a new idea; over 20 years ago parents were experimenting with TNI (Targeted Nutritional Intervention) whereby supplements of vitamins, minerals, amino acids and digestive enzymes were given to children with Down’s syndrome. The programme was supposed to help cognitive development, clarity of speech and it was even claimed that there was an improvement of facial features. Even then, the term ‘improvement’ made me me somewhat nervous, as the term can only be subjective and dictated by society’s desire to make everyone appear ‘normal’.
Are we now still are trying to eradicate the physical characteristics as a way of denying the diagnosis? Everybody has his or her own individual personality and physical make-up. People with Down’s syndrome are all unique individuals with their own personalities, family backgrounds and aspirations that make them who they are. Every individual person should be valued for who they are, not what they look like.
Anyway, I had pondered too long over this preposterous article and so by now my coffee had gone cold. Maybe for my next beverage, I should forget the caffeine and imbibe some green tea. I had, after all, always wanted to look like George Clooney. Apparently, a nightly cup of Earl Grey can create a noble look, a steaming demitasse of Darjeeling before bed might turn me into a Kit Harrington doppelgänger and who knows the effect of a pint of Lapsang Souchong a day might achieve?
No…on second thoughts I think I’ll stick to the java and remain just who I am.
Being able to do her own washing and having responsibility for her personal possessions symbolised the freedom Michelle Stevens* wanted but was denied in institutional care. Stevens features in my latest Guardian article (screenshot above). Her severe mental health problems meant she was in and out of residential care and mental health wards for a decade. She recalls staff shouting at her and living circumstances that were “very closed up and not nice at all”.
Today, however, Stevens says she is “much happier and freer”. She has a bedroom in a large double-fronted Victorian house – and she loves the garden at her supported living home in West Norwood, south London, which is run by social care provider Certitude. “[It] is cleaner than other places I have been, and has nicer facilities,” says Stevens.
She enjoys socialising – with the 11 other residents and locally – and for the first time in three years, she does her own washing and is trusted with her belongings.
The women-only housing is designed for those with enduring and complex mental health issues who may be stuck in restrictive environments. Certitude provides support while First Priority, a housing association, manages the tenancy agreements. The home opened in September 2016 and residents, who are mostly in their 30s and 40s, benefit from individualised support that is rarely offered in residential or inpatient care.
I’m really grateful to all the women who shared their experiences for the story and talked about the “good road ahead”, as Michelle put it, which now seems to be ahead of them. Read the rest of the article here.
If you need social care support, why can’t services respond better to your individual aspirations – instead of fitting you into what’s already on offer?
This aim – shifting traditional social work practice to “community led” methods – is at the heart of a new programme I’ve just reported on.
Leeds is one of nine local authorities changing adult social care by developing community-led social work (in a nutshell – more local solutions). The councils are being supported in this drive by social inclusion charity National Development Team for Inclusion’s community-led support (CLS) programme. NDTi has just published an evaluation from the first year of delivery in the participating areas
Gail*, for example, has a learning difficulty, mobility problems and is prone to angry outbursts. Leeds council adult social care staff have supported her intermittently over a few years, helping with self-care and chaotic living conditions.
Recently, it considered commissioning weekly visits from a support worker to help Gail manage her home. But instead, under a new approach launched in Leeds last year, Gail met social work staff at community “talking points” – venues such as libraries and churches instead of at home or at the council. The neutral environment sparked different conversations about support. Gail said she wanted to volunteer and staff felt able to be more creative with her care.
A social worker supported Gail to explore opportunities at her community centre, where she began volunteering. Her self-esteem has grown, her personal appearance has improved and she has begun anger management classes.
Feedback from people like Gail involved in the new support method includes comments about staff such as “they listened to me” and “we did talk about the important things”.
The concept of community social work is not new, but demand for social care, pressure on staff and funding cuts mean less time and freedom to develop innovative solutions. The 2014 Care Act encourages community-focused support, but this has been hard to achieve. A difficulty in developing “strengths-based” solutions is well documented, for example, in recent guidance from Think Local Act Personal.
At Leeds, adult social services director Cath Roff says the council had two choices: “Either we go down the road of ever-tightening interpretation of eligibility criteria to manage resources, or try a new approach. Social work services are increasingly becoming the ‘border patrol’, policing in order to manage reducing budgets. None of us came into social care to do that.”
Scrounger or superhero – and little in between. This is how people like my sister, who happens to have a learning disability, are generally seen in society and the media.
The missing part of the equation is what led me to develop the book Made Possible, a crowdfunded collection of essays on success by high-achieving people with learning disabilities. I’m currently working on the anthology with the publisher Unbound and it’s available for pre-order here.
I wanted to support the event because of its aim to bring together a diverse range of people, including campaigners, families, self-advocates and professionals (check out #LeavingNoOneBehind #WHIS to get a feel for the debate).
This post is based on the discussions at the event, and on my views as the sibling of someone with a learning disability and as a social affairs journalist. I’ve focused on print and online media influences perceptions; broadcast media clearly has a major role – but it’s not where my experience over the past 20 years lies.
Firstly, here’s Raana:
Raana’s 28. She loves Chinese food. She adores listening to music (current favourite activity: exploring Queen’s back catalogue – loud). She’s a talented baker and has just started a woodwork course. She has a wicked, dry sense of humour (proof here).
She also also has the moderate learning disability fragile x syndrome. She lives in supported housing and will need lifelong care and support.
The way I describe Raana – with her character, abilities first, diagnosis, label and support needs second, is how I see her. It’s how her family, friends and support staff see her.
But it’s not how she would be portrayed in the mainstream press.
Instead, this comment from the writer and activist Paul Hunt, reflects how she and other learning disabled people are seen:
“We are tired of being statistics, cases, wonderfully courageous examples to the world, pitiable objects to stimulate funding”. Paul Hunt wrote these words in 1966 – his comment is 51 years old, but it’s still relevant (charity fundraising has changed since then, but the rest of the words are spot on – sadly).
Say the words “learning disability” to most people and they will think of headlines about care scandals or welfare cuts.
These reinforce stereotypes of learning disabled as individuals to be pitied or patronised. The middle ground is absent; the gap between Raana’s reality and how she’s represented is huge.
How often, for example, do you read an article about learning disability in the mainstream media which includes a direct quote from someone with a learning disability?
Stories are about people, not with people.
Caveat: as a former national newspaper reporter, I know only too well that the fast-pace of the newsroom and the pressure of deadlines mean it’s not always possible to get all the interviews you’d like. This is harder for general news reporters reacting to breaking stories than it is for specialists or feature writers who have just the right contacts and/or the time to reflect every angle of the story. But there’s still more than can be done – and much of it is very simple.
Take the language used in news and features.
There’s a huge amount of research shows how media influences public attitudes. One focus group project by Glasgow University a few years ago showed people thought up to 70% of disability benefit claims were fraudulent. People said they came to this conclusion based on articles about ‘scroungers’.
The real figure of fraudulent benefit claims? Just 1 per cent.
The language used in mainstream media is often problematic. I wince when I read about people “suffering from autism” – “coping with a learning disability” – or being “vulnerable”.
Images used in stories often don’t help.
As a quick – but very unscientific – litmus test – I typed the words “learning disability” into Google’s image search.
This is a flavor of what I found – the most common pictures that came up were the dreadful “headclutcher” stock image that often accompanies articles about learning disability.
These images say, defeat, frustration, confusion, negativity.
This is not how I see my sister, her friends or the learning disabled campaigners I know.
This is more how I see them:
This shot is from a story I did a few days ago about Martin, Martin’s 22 and works part-time as a DJ at a local radio station (you can read about him here). Martin also happens to have a moderate learning disability and cerebral palsy.
We need more of this.
An obvious – but nonetheless important – point to make here is about the disability and employment gap. A more diverse workforce in the creative sector will impact on representation. Only 6% of people with learning disabilities work, for example, but around 65% want to (I wrote about this issue in the Guardian recently)
But there is cause for optimism. There is a slow but significant shift in the representation of learning disabled people thanks to the rise in grassroots activism, family campaigning, self-advocacy and the growing empowerment agenda.
Social media is helping spread awareness and spread a different narrative.
This rise in self-advocacy is what led me to develop Made Possible. The book’s aim is to challenge stereotypes; it targets a mainstream readership and introduces readers to learning disabled people in areas like arts, politics and campaigning. Their achievements are impressive regardless of their disability.
While I’m researching the book, I’m trying to keep three words in mind – attitude, ability, aspiration:
Am I sharing experiences that help shift public attitudes?
Am I reporting people’s abilities, not just their disabilities?
Am I reflecting people’s potential – what do they aspire to achieve, and how can this happen?
And although I’m focusing on positive representation of learning disability, it’s worth stressing that there’s an equally vital need to highlight the challenges.
The two go hand – a more authentic portrayal of people’s lives (their qualities, hopes and aspirations) and reporting the inequalities they face.
Because readers are more likely to care about the inequality and support the need to solve it if they feel closer to the real people experiencing that inequality – if they stop seeing learning disabled people as “the other”, or as statistics (as Paul Hunt wrote over 50 years ago..) and as people first.
It’s often said that media should reflect, serve and strengthen society. Which means we have to be more accurate and authentic about how we include and portray a huge section of that society – including my sister – which happens to have a disability.