How transformed is care?

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Dr Sandra Dowling, a lecturer in Disability Studies at the Norah Fry Centre for Disability Studies discusses deinstitutionalisation in the context of the Transforming Care Policy programme.

People with learning disabilities are still, in some circumstances, leading institutionalised lives – the Transforming Care programme has a long way to go, and we must not forget those people with learning disabilities with the highest levels of ‘need’ who are experiencing the highest level of separation from an ordinary life. Recent decades have seen significant changes in the lives of people with learning disabilities in the UK. Once routinely institutionalised, distanced from home communities or their Right to a life like any other, people with learning disabilities were relegated to the shadows of the everyday and had limited opportunity to effect change. This article suggests these issues might still be affecting too many people with learning disabilities in 2018.

Advocacy and activism amongst people with learning disabilities and their allies has been a powerful force in altering the opportunities available to some people. To be respected, to be heard, to have choice and to really have the chance of a life like any other have been common demands. For many people these demands, these requests, have to some extent been realised. In the UK today some people with learning disabilities live in a home they have chosen, some have a job, some have regular contact with family and friends and some feel part of their community. Too many do not.

The challenge to realise the fundamental human rights of this section of the population is ongoing. The urgency of the challenge is very much determined by personal position. If you are a person with learning disabilities or indeed an ally, these challenges are of course urgent. Although recent policy does commit to a transformation in social care for people with learning disabilities, urgency to transform this to practice is not consistently apparent.
Major policy initiatives and legislation in recent years have produced a convincing rhetoric to support ideas of individual autonomy, inclusion and a role in decision making about important life matters. The Care Act 2014, for instance, details guidance for adult social care which, importantly, includes the principle of individual wellbeing. In practice wellbeing involves people having control of their day to day life, living in suitable accommodation and being able to contribute to society. It is a requirement of The Act that local authorities take people’s views, wishes and beliefs into consideration, and that their efforts support what people themselves want to achieve in their own lives.

The Transforming Care Policy Programme produced a raft of reports, guidance and policy following the shocking abuse of people with learning disabilities residing in Winterbourne View Assessment and Treatment Unit. The overall aim of Transforming Care has been about improving health and social care services to enable people to live in the community, to have good support and to be close to home. It aimed to address the high numbers of people with learning disabilities living for too long in Assessment and Treatment Units (ATU), often at a long distance from their families and without adequate discharge planning. However, since the scandal broke in 2011, and following a robust policy response, little has changed. The numbers of people in ATU settings has remained stubbornly high, provision of sufficient support in the community has not met need and discharge remains an elongated process for many.

Narratives of Home, a study funded by the NIHR School for Social Care Research, conducted within the Norah Fry Centre for Disability Studies (NFCDS), has interviewed 18 people with learning disabilities and three parents of people discharged from Assessment and Treatment Units (ATU) during the lifetime of Transforming Care. This narrative study has collected people’s stories of resettlement in the community following their hospital stay. Of those interviewed, 12 were male and 6 were female. Time spent in ATU settings ranged from 4 – 20 years. The legacy of institutional living clearly impacted on their resettlement experiences.

The factors which are identified as important to individuals are just what you would expect. Security, choice, a valued social role, friendships, fun and the opportunity to take pleasure in things which are important to you. But what is different is that the people that we interviewed, even though living in the community, still often live within parameters defined by others. Some described their attempts to ‘get out’ of the ATU by ‘doing what the doctors said’ or ‘just do what you are told, keep your head down, get through all the programmes and hope for the best’. These experiences travelled beyond the walls of the ATU into their now ’independent’ lives in the community. In interview people checked with present support workers whether they were saying the ‘right thing’, or whether it was ‘ok to say this’. Some were so heavily medicated that they could not remain awake throughout the interview.

Choice and autonomy was found in things such as choosing how to decorate your home, or what to have for a meal. A deeper sense of independence of thought and action though, remained elusive for some. Institutionalisation, just as a hundred, or fifty or twenty years ago produces the same results. It dis-empowers individuals, depleting independence of thought and sense of self. A good life happens at a deeper level than what can be seen on the surface of community living. The need to address issues of identity and equality remain pertinent. Deinstitutionalisation remains a goal.

More people with learning disabilities should be on TV!

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My name is Beth Richards, I have a learning disability and I am an actress. I want to educate the world about people with learning disabilities through my acting, and think that mainstream TV in the UK should be doing more to represent people like me.

I am doing some research to find out why so few people with learning disabilities are on TV and what can be done to change this. At the moment data suggests that only 1.2% of people on TV have a disability (Mental Health Foundation, 2014) and we still don’t know how many of these have a learning disability.

My research is part of a much bigger ESRC funded project called “Getting Things Changed” at the Norah Fry Centre for Disability Studies, University of Bristol. This project is looking at how the barriers people with disabilities in the UK face can be overcome by changing the way people do things.

Very little research has been done to explore why so few people with learning disabilities are on mainstream TV, or in the media in general, but organisations like Mencap and The Mental Health Foundation have campaigned for things to improve. Some actors with learning disabilities have also spoken out about the issue. For example, Sarah Gordy, an actress with Down’s syndrome who has been on shows like Downton Abbey on ITV and The Silkworm on BBC 1, said:

“It’s important that people with a learning disability are seen on our screens and on stage – simply because we exist.”
(The Huffington Post, 2017).

These campaigns are starting to make a difference as both the BBC and Channel 4 have made commitments to improve the representation of disabled people on their channels. For example, the BBC has committed to quadrupling the number of disabled people in its shows by the end of this year, whilst Channel 4 launched its 360 Diversity Charter in 2015 and made 2016 it’s Year of Disability. I think these commitments are great, but it is hard to find out what impact they have had as the channels aren’t reporting their success widely. From a viewer’s perspective, it doesn’t seem like there are more disabled people, especially people with learning disabilities on TV, than there were a few years ago.

One reason why the numbers of disabled people on TV might not have increased despite the BBC and Channel 4’s commitments, might be down to the way TV is made. Shows are written, commissioned, casted and produced by different groups of people. This means there are lots of different layers where disability can be excluded or discriminated against. Many of them out of the control of the television channels themselves.

This seems to suggest that the way TV is ‘done’ affects the number of people with learning disabilities who end up on our screens. I hope to explore this issue in my research by talking to writers, commissioners, casting agents, producers and actors both with and without learning disabilities about the industry. I am going to look at what these people say using Social Practice Theory to help understand how the way TV is ‘done’ can be changed to help get more people with learning disabilities on TV.

I know people with learning disabilities can be actors and have lots of talents. We are role models for others because we know what it’s like to grow up with a learning disability.

Hopefully my research can help change the media for the better.

If you want to be involved or have anything else you could help me with my research, please contact me at beth.richards@bristol.ac.uk or my PA Victoria Mason-Angelow victoria.mason@bristol.ac.uk. You can also find out more about my research and the wider ‘Getting Things Changed’ project on our website http://www.bristol.ac.uk/sps/gettingthingschanged/