I made myself watch tonight’s utterly shocking BBC Panorama programme which uncovered horrific abuse at an institution for adults with complex learning disabilities. I say institution, because that is exactly what the care unit was. Locked doors, time spent almost exclusively inside, no activities or stimulation, unqualified staff and worst of all, staff who took a sadistic pleasure in taunting, abusing, assaulting and torturing the poor individuals who had the misfortune to be placed there. There was precious little care or support for the most vulnerable individuals and absolutely nothing that resembled an ordinary life or assistance to live an independent life. The abuse meted out to residents was stunning in its brutality.
It would be easy to shrug complacently and assure ourselves that it couldn’t possibly happen here, in Scotland, but we would be wrong to do so. One of the reasons the abuse continued for so long is because everyone – including the Care Commission – ignored a whistle-blower. In recent weeks, there have been cases of neglect in care provision in Scotland coming to the media’s attention.
But there are other reasons to be worried. Just as elsewhere on these islands, disabled people and their families are facing an unprecedented onslaught, a kind of free-for-all with no support, no provision, no right too precious to be considered untouchable.
We are back in the realm of scything hidden services, the ones that most people do not even know exist, yet are a lifeline for disabled people and their families. We are back to knowing the cost of everything and the value of nothing.
How else to explain proposals to charge disabled people – who are more likely to be poor than non-disabled people – for parking in council car parks? Or to charge families for school transport – a right given free to non-disabled children if they live a certain distance from school? Or to remove classroom assistants from schools making it much more difficult for disabled children to get the support they need to succeed (or even just get by) at school?
Having been moved – rightly – out of institutions and care homes, into supported accommodation, living independently in the community, with support, many disabled adults now find that support cut to the minimum. They will get help to get up, get washed and dressed and with the reverse procedure in the evening. For the rest of the time, they are on their own, effectively prisoners in their own homes or totally dependent on family and friends to get out and about.
Increasingly, local authorities are attempting to narrow the scope of their obligation to disabled children and adults, becoming ever more inventive at how to categorise and assess people so they fall outwith the criteria for actually requiring help and support. And only the other week, Scottish housing associations celebrated a policy U-turn which means they no longer have to pay the first thousand pounds towards any aid or adaptation.
Children – still, despite a Scottish Government strategy and increased resources – forced to spend months, years sometimes in wheelchairs they have outgrown; adults going without occupational therapy that helps them stay well; families finding their short breaks reduced, stretching them to breaking point; over-loaded social workers eking out assessment processes in order to disguise inadequate budgets.
The fact is that many more children and adults are living longer with more complex support needs than ever before, and there is a lack of planning or resourcing for the future. Consequently, agencies try to pass the buck of the cost while people go without. Moreover, we do not know how best to support people whose behaviour challenges the norms: as a society, we can cope, just, when they are children but are at a loss to know how to support them as their needs – emotional and physical – become more complex. This bit of the demographic deficit rarely gets discussed.
And then we have the UK Government ring wraiths, circling overhead with their welfare reforms, breathing lies and innuendo into the media mouthpieces, generating headline stories about people pretending to be disabled, defrauding the state with their fake illnesses and conditions, insisting that people are fit to work, redefining who deserves our support and who does not. All of it designed to dehumanise, to stop us seeing the worth and value of disabled people in our society and instead, weigh up only what they and their families cost us. The indignities being visited upon families with disabled children and disabled adults as they are made to jump through more hoops, to prove their entitlement to basic support and income, simply to get by, never mind get on, increase daily. And are not something the rest of us, the differently abled, would ever tolerate.
Far from being the exception, stories of abuse and neglect by workers paid to care and support, of hate crime and low level harassment by neighbours and strangers, of squabbles and spats over access to precious resources, will grow. Expect more Panoramas. Expect more isolation, more injustice, more poverty.
If how we treat the most vulnerable is indeed the mark of a civilised society, then potentially we are in big trouble. Not just there, but here.