Why don’t we just… end the abuse of people with learning disabilities?

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Katherine Runswick-Cole and Dan Goodley

What have you heard about people with learning disabilities lately? Perhaps you’ve heard about the abuse or neglect revealed by the BBC Panorama programme about Winterbourne View, an assessment and treatment unit (ATU)? Perhaps you know that, years later, more than 3,500 people with learning disabilities are still incarcerated in ATUs just like Winterboure View?  Maybe you heard the reports about the rise in grooming of people with learning disabilities by sexual predators? Or perhaps you’ve heard nothing at all about the lives of people with learning disabilities because stories of neglect and abuse often go unreported by the mainstream media. 

Connor Sparrowhawk, a young man with a learning disability and epilepsy, was found to have died a “preventable” death when he was left unsupervised in the bath and drowned in an ATU. Connor was known affectionately by his family as Laughing Boy (LB). It took a social media campaign (http://justiceforlb.org ) and nine months to pass before his death was reported in mainstream media. From the #JusticeforLB campaign sprang an idea to change the law. The #LBBill (https://lbbill.wordpress.com), which aims to promote disabled people’s right to live in their community and to make it harder for the state to force disabled people into residential care or treatment.

It is time to stop the abuse of people with learning disabilities and the #LBBill is part of the change we need. But if we really want to end the abuse, we need a cultural shift too. Recent research (bigsocietydis.wordpress.com) confirms that people with learning disabilities have hopes, dreams and aspirations. Not surprisingly, they want to work, to have friends, to have a relationship and a family and to be part of their communities – just like other people.  And while it is important to document abuse, when these images are the only representations of the lives of people with learning disabilities that appear in the media, then this simply reinforces an image of learning disabled people’s “vulnerability”, as if abuse is somehow a part of “having a learning disability”. It’s not –

abuse is something done to people with learning disabilities in a disabling society. Over the last five years the support that people with learning disabilities need to lead ordinary lives has been eroded. In a time of austerity-as-ideology, cuts to both learning disability services and wider public services have made people with learning disabilities differentially precarious – they have borne a heavy price. The Centre for Welfare Reform found that while the average person experienced £1,226 of cuts in 2014-2015, disabled people faced a £4,660 cut. We need to invest in the public services that make good lives for people with learning disabilities (and us all); we need to remove the systemic, cultural and economic barriers to people with learning disabilities living ordinary lives. Only then will people with learning disabilities be seen as fully human too and only then will it really be possible to end the abuse of people with learning disabilities in our society. You never know – we might be able to celebrate with people with learning disabilities, rather than mourning human loss.

Katherine Runswick-Cole is senior research fellow in disability studies and psychology, Manchester Metropolitan University. Dan Goodley is professor of education and disability studies, Sheffied University

Photo: Connor Sparrowhawk courtesy of Sara Ryan


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