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.
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.
My sister Raana made this film on the theme of community – helped by her brilliant support worker Indra – for sharing at this week’s (Un)Ordinary Conference in London.
The event, held by the campaigning learning disability charity Stay Up Late, was billed as “a learning disabilities conference with a difference” because professionals from the social care sector made up much of the audience and those on the platform had a learning disability and/or autism.
The event explored learning disabled people’s views on community, relationships and employment.
I’ll write about my own thoughts later, but right now I don’t want to put my own filter on what Raana wanted to share – not least because if I did, that filter would spontaneously combust into a zillion radiant pieces of joy.
I am so incredibly proud of my creative, determined sister, a fact that will be obvious to those who’ve supported and been following the progress of the book Raana’s inspired, Made Possible.
What I will add though, for context, is that Raana has fragile x syndrome and in the past she’s found it tricky to do some of the things she does now. And while she’s done public speaking in familiar places with friends and her trusted support staff, it was a huge deal for her to travel up to London for the day and be in a place she’d never been to before with a whole new bunch of people she’d never met.
Raana didn’t fancy making a speech or taking questions, hence the film with captions.
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
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.
“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.
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.
Martin, who has a mild learning disability and cerebral palsy, recently interviewed two engineers from the PWL production company and the experience boosted his confidence. “That was my first interview. I was nervous but I nailed it,” he says. “We recorded it first and then we edited it. I enjoyed coming up with questions.”
He also won the station’s producer of the year award for 2016-17. What would he do if was not at the station? “I wouldn’t know everyone here – they are like my family. I would be at home doing nothing or going out and spending money, but I want to save and become more independent.”
Online station Direction Radio is part of social care provider Surrey Choices’ day service programme. It helps people with physical or learning disabilities to develop skills in broadcast and production.
Some 19 DJs produce and present the shows reflecting all musical genres – from rock to pop, R&B and classical. Station manager Chris Fenn (who does not have a disability) explains that DJs have “a blank canvas” to create their slots, which last between one and three hours, and decide on everything from the jingle to the playlist. “I say to all the guys, ‘You do what you want to do with it’,” says Fenn. “It’s all their choice and that’s why it’s so diverse.”
You can read my report on Martin and his fellow DJs on the Guardian website (all photos from Surrey Choices).
Six weeks ago I launched a crowdfunding campaign for Made Possible, a groundbreaking collection of essays on success by high-achieving people with learning disabilities.
The book is inspired by my sister, who has the learning disability fragile x syndrome, as well as by some of the remarkable, succesful people I’ve met and interviewed over the last few years – all of whom happen to have a learning disability.
I’m delighted to say the book is now 100% funded, such has been the fast pace and mounting enthusiasm for the project. More than 200 diverse people and organisations have got behind the book since its launch on 6 September.
Made Possible presents the authentic experiences of a range of professionals who have a learning disability in different areas like theatre, music, art and campaigning. And, for the first time, these high achievers tell their own personal stories of success, in their own words.
It is a book to change the current narratives about learning disabled people, narratives that mean they are talked about as somehow less than human.
Thank you to everyone who’s got involved and backed this book. I can’t wait to start working on it. To find out more, follow the book’s progress and to pre-order a copy, see Made Possible on the Unbound website.