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Stop Treating People With Learning Disabilities as Second Class Citizens

15/05/2016 20:17 | Updated 15 May 2016

We've come a long way since the days when people with learning disabilities were abandoned in institutions.

Ignorance and prejudice still exist, but thankfully attitudes have changed for the better towards those with Down's syndrome and autism for example.

However, society is still failing its most vulnerable as highlighted by the tragic case of Connor Sparrowhawk.

The teenager drowned in a bath at a unit run by Southern Health NHS Foundation trust and, according to an inspection report published last month, patients are still at risk at this mental health trust three years on from Connor's death.

Connor was affected by autism as well as learning difficulties and epilepsy. His mother Dr Sara Ryan says her son's death shows how people like Connor are denied the same healthcare treatment as others.

Losing a child is devastating. Losing a child partly as a result of other people's neglect is even harder to bear.

It's shocking that people with learning disabilities are still being let down, especially given the promises made after the Winterbourne View scandal.

The appalling abuse and neglect by care workers at this private hospital against adults with severe learning difficulties led to criminal prosecutions. It also triggered extensive soul-searching as to how this was allowed to happen.

Sir Stephen Bubb's report in 2014 proposed a programme of closures of in-patient institutions providing inappropriate care. A charter of rights for people with learning disabilities and their families was also needed, he said. Another recommendation was ensuring staff have the right skills to support people whose behaviour is deemed challenging.

The Coalition did pledge to move people who should not be in hospitals into the community. I've no doubt there is still commitment to such a well-intentioned goal.

However, it has yet to be reached nearly five years on. The Royal College of Nursing revealed earlier this year that the number of those with learning disabilities languishing in hospitals, when they should be in the community, has increased.

This is an intolerable situation. It's one which has a detrimental impact both on those who are effectively incarcerated, and on their families who often must travel long distances to visit them. That's why I agree that a long-term strategy is needed which joins up the workforce and services.

An unacceptable inequality still exists between care for people with physical health issues and those with mental health needs. Nowhere more so is this reflected in the fact life expectancy is much shorter for people with learning disabilities than the rest of the population. Their risk of death overall is greater too.

It shows why care staff need specialist training to spot any signs of distress. So often people's needs go overlooked because they lack the verbal skills necessary to communicate. Or they are considered awkward and difficult when really they are in pain and discomfort.

As a social care organisation, Turning Point has taken steps to improve support for people with learning disabilities. Our specialist learning disability nurses have drawn up guidance which has been shared with others working in the field.

The aim is to spare people with learning disabilities unnecessary hospital admissions and importantly to prevent health problems occurring in the first place.

Only when professionals have the right knowledge will they truly understand how to support those with learning disabilities. And only then will they enjoy full and independent lives.

It's still only at times of crisis that learning disability gets talked about. Or that those who are affected and need specialist support get their voices heard.

The health and welfare of people with learning disabilities must be a priority all of the time. And we need people with the right skills to ensure the needs of these people are properly met all day, every day.

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