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Supporting adults with learning disabilities and complex needs

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Supporting capacity: Young man in wheelchair

Serious incidents such as those at Winterbourne View Hospital and Whorlton Hall are sadly not a thing of the past. Warnings have been shared from various sources regarding the lack of appropriate support for adults with learning disabilities, leaving many locked away in contravention of their Human Rights.

In October 2022, the case of Tony Hickmott was brought to light wherein a combination of factors resulted in Tony, who is autistic, being effectively imprisoned in hospital for 21 years.

But the issues goes far beyond even the sad case of Tony Hickmott…

Will the NHS care for me?

In a recent BBC Panorama investigation, actor and campaigner Tommy Jessop explored the issues of hospital care for people with learning disabilities. If you’ve not seen ‘Will the NHS care for me?’ on BBC iPlayer, I really do highly recommend it. It raises many important questions, and leads one to wonder just how far really have we come, when people with a learning disability are more than twice as likely to die from avoidable causes than the rest of the population.

On the one hand, many of the issues raised in the Panorama investigation should be ‘common sense’ for professionals supporting people with learning disability. It should be standard practice to treat others with dignity, respect and compassion, and to communicate with them in a clear and effective manner. And yet it seems there are still many barriers yet to be overcome.

Perhaps the issue may be staff training; it may even be a lack of resources. Whatever the case, it is an absolute tragedy that people with learning disabilities should have a life expectancy 20 years shorter than non-disabled people in the twenty-first century.

A system in crisis

In a recent Court of Protection case, a young 17-year-old man with autism, severe learning difficulties, and Tourette’s Syndrome attacked three members of staff at his specialist school, leaving them with significant injuries. This distressing incident led to the school terminating his placement. However, the local authority was unable to find a suitable alternative. The result of the case, as presided over by Honourable Mrs Justice Judd, was that the young man (DN), would have to return home until a suitable placement was found.

In making her judgement, the judge noted that the decision was ‘very sub-optimal’, but she was left with no other option given the lack of suitable alternatives.

Be the change you want to see

Unfortunately, none of the issues mentioned in this blog are exclusive to adults with learning disabilities. Indeed, the very same issues continue to be seen across Children and Youth services, Mental Health sector and beyond.

Having said this, I have had the privilege to work alongside several high quality care providers, organisations and charities in my time, who have exceeded expectations of what is possible for promoting inclusion, quality of life, autonomy and least restrictive practices. I have witnessed first hand that the levels of care needed by individuals such as Tony Hickmott, DN and others is more than possible – it is achievable and has been achieved in a positive person centred approach that maximises quality of life at many excellent care providers around the UK.

While each of the cases mention in this blog are no doubt distressing, it is our moral and professional duty not to distance ourselves from the problem, but rather, be a part of the change, actively seeking to promote the Rights of those we support – asking challenging questions to ensure that vulnerable individuals are supported in every way possible.

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