People with learning disabilities are an important group, who don't often get heard. If anyone does speak for them it's usually well-intentioned professionals or family members. This tends to encourage the false belief that people with learning disabilities are a rather strange and unfortunate group, who need pity and charity. Nothing could be further from the truth.
For at least the past thirty years people with learning disabilities have been fighting their way through layers of oppressive practices and prejudices. Again and again they have had to remind people that they are fully human - with full human rights:
- The right to love, relationships and family - not sterilisation and sterility
- The right to a home - not an institution
- The right to work - not a place in a 'training centre'
- The right to speak for themselves - without others taking over
Progress has been slow - but very real. There are more and more people with learning disabilities who do speak out and challenge the system. People like my friend Gary Bourlet, founder of People First England, have been patiently and powerfully advocating for the rights of people with learning disabilities. Only this Autumn Gary and colleagues could be found at the Labour and Conservative Party Conferences - asking tough questions.
Progress was real - but now seems to be in rapid reverse. Over the past four and half years people with learning disabilities have been assaulted on all sides. Together we have identified at least 50 bad policies which harm people with learning disabilities, and in summary these policies have the following impact:
- Human rights are under attack - self-advocacy groups have been closing in vast numbers as funding and support to access the law has been reduced.
- Poverty and inequality is growing - benefit cuts are driving disabled people deeper into poverty while tax increases target the poorest.
- Independent living is out of reach - social care has already been cut by 28% and the cuts keep on coming - yet far too many remain in expensive institutional care.
- Equal access to healthcare is at risk - already experiencing unequal treatment, people with learning disabilities will be amongst the first casualties as the NHS is privatised.
- Housing rights diminished - instead of being able to enjoy their own home most people have to remain with their family or are placed in 'congregate care.'
- Excluded from education - our rigid and ineffective education system excludes rather than nurtures children who, while different, have so much to offer.
- Weakened communities - instead of strengthening local government and local communities we've seen them replaced by large, corporate and multi-national organisations.
- Growing unemployment - many people with learning disabilities can work and earn good wages, but systems like the Work Programme fail because they underestimate people.
- Unprotected by the law - growing hate crime - fuelled by disgraceful political rhetoric - goes unpunished.
What is striking about all this is that none of these issues are unique to people with learning disabilities. These problems harm most of us. Our industrialised educational system is bad for most of us - not just people with learning disabilities. Healthcare privatisation will be bad for most of us - not just people with learning disabilities. The growth of corporate control is bad for most of us - not just people with learning disabilities. But people with learning disabilities are always amongst the first to experience these negative changes.
Having a learning disability means that you need other people to listen better, to be more thoughtful and more respectful. In a decent society the presence of people with learning disabilities encourages people to wake up to their full humanity and to better understand what is really important in life. But in a society that has lost its way, which focuses only on fame, power or money, then people with learning disabilities will quickly sense that things are wrong. They put a spot-light on the welfare state and on social justice. They see further and more deeply; while most of us just fail to notice what's going on around us.
How can we listen better people with learning disabilities? How can we become the decent kind of society that most of us want - in our hearts - but which we somehow forget in the fight to be top-dog?
This is the challenge that the Learning Disability Alliance England has set itself. On Friday 21st November the Alliance will be launched at an event in Manchester. Over the next few months people with learning disabilities - and families - and their allies - will evaluate the current Government and publish its verdict before the election. We will then work with all Political Parties to help them understand what's really important - not just for people with learning disabilities - but for any decent society.
Over 100 groups and organisations have already joined us. Over 1,200 individual members have joined - even before we've launched. If you believe in justice and human rights - then why don't you join us too?