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There’s more to the Learning Disability agenda than Winterbourne View

Posted: 06/01/15, Author:

Over the last few months, I’ve been increasingly coming to the view that the distressing events around Winterbourne View are having a negative impact way beyond that faced by the people and families who lived in that institution and others like it.

There’s more to the Learning Disability agenda than Winterbourne View

The Winterbourne scandal was widely perceived as having an ‘up-side’ - an opportunity to focus attention on some things that needed changing in the sector. The policy priority around citizenship and life described in Valuing People had lost momentum. Learning disability was increasingly not being seen as a priority by policy makers and services. Winterbourne View gave it that priority and (so many of us hoped) provided the opportunity to finally deal with inappropriate institutional approaches and ensure that people who challenged had the same life chances as others.

Sadly we were wrong, and for three and a half years, the rhetoric of needing to do something has dominated the learning disability agenda. Beyond raising awareness and knowledge in some quarters and despite the best efforts of many organisations, there has been minimal positive visible or measureable change. However, this blog is not about what has gone wrong with the national and local response to Winterbourne. Instead I want to raise a wider, worrying impact of the Winterbourne debacle.

Put simply, the learning disability agenda has become only about Winterbourne and responding to it. Whilst we all (myself included) became agitated about the lack of an effective response, numerous other negative things have been impacting on the lives of people with learning disabilities and their families. Here is a selection – almost all of which cannot be adequately quantified because evidence and data is simply not being collected:
• The voice of people with learning disabilities is being weakened with funding for advocacy cut in many localities.
• Employment supports are being cut because supporting learning disabled people into work is seen as a ‘luxury’.
• Some commissioners are intentionally moving back towards group living settings because they are incorrectly perceived as being cheaper – despite some significant evidence that congregate living creates long term dependencies and thus expenditure.
• Some people’s services are being reduced to the minimum possible with personal care and safeguarding being the only considerations. (Last week, I heard of an authority whose care managers were assessing everyone as to whether they could use a microwave. If they could, then support around evening meals was being totally withdrawn as people were expected to have a microwave dinner every night. So much for healthy and cost-effective eating.)
• The skill mix in many community learning disability teams is being downgraded to save money, without reference to the medium-term costs arising from a lack of particular expertise.

I could go on. Six or seven years ago there would have been an outcry over this, but right now, the only thing that matters is responding to Winterbourne View and the (up to) 3,500 people who are incarcerated in inappropriate services. It is essential to address that agenda, but in doing so we seem to have completely forgotten about the wider population of people with learning disabilities and whether, as a society, we are indeed valuing them as people rather than slowly slipping back into a 1980s mindset of seeing them as a dependent ‘group’ for whom we need do no more than provide basic custodial care. There is no national focus on learning disability beyond Winterbourne – be that from Government or other national bodies – and that in itself impacts on how well we can work together to create a better future for all people. 

There is a serious danger that Winterbourne will not be a catalyst to positive change. Instead, it risks being the albatross that drags the wider perspective on the lives of people with learning disabilities back twenty years. Just before Xmas, I even heard a senior and influential national player suggesting that responsibility for learning disability services should be passed back to the NHS, because local government is perceived to have failed in its response to Winterbourne and Government can direct the NHS in ways it cannot direct local government. How ridiculous.

There are some notable exceptions to this acceptance of a downward spiral in focus and aspiration. Those behind the LB Bill for example, have generated a set of proposals for legal change that could have benefit for all people with learning disabilities and their families. However, Winterbourne has actually exposed many of the fault lines in the learning disability sector with some organisations appearing to lose the ability or willingness to work together.

We need to rediscover a progressive learning disability agenda and build ownership of that across all of the sector and all of society. Yes, that will involve addressing the root causes of the Winterbourne scandal and the subsequent three year failure, but it will also involve us going back to the fundamental principles behind Valuing People, of rights, independence, choice and inclusion for ALL people with learning disabilities. 

Rob Greig will be speaking the NDTi conference on 27 January: ‘What is going on? – rediscovering the whole picture for people with learning disabilities and their families’. Other speakers include Ciara Lawrence and Ismail Kaji, Mencap; Shaun Picken, My Life My Choice; Professor Chris Hatton, Centre for Disability Research; Lancaster University; Fiona Ritchie, Turning Point.