This week the Centre for Welfare Reform published another major report outlining the severe crisis in the social care system. Back to Bedlam, by Robin Jackson, describes how decades of slow progress, which had seen people with a learning disability step out from the shadows, leaving behind the horrors and shame of the institution, is now being reversed.
Today people are being returned to institutional care homes and residential units, while many are still incarcerated in prisons and special hospitals. The promise of community life, real home, real jobs and lives of relationship and meaning is being broken. Instead people are being sold off to large private corporations as 'business opportunities,' not treated as human beings. This process has accelerated with austerity.
One of the reason why cuts in social care have been so severe - the number of people supported by adult social care has been cut by nearly 50% since 2009 - is that the impact of these cuts is vicious, but subtle. For an older person it may be an inability to get support at home, a longer stay in hospital and an earlier death than necessary. For someone with a learning disability it may be that their family is pushed to the edge, that they are forced to live in residential care, that they are excluded from work, relationships and a life of citizenship.
Jackson's report is particularly helpful in showing us that these problems are not just caused by a heartless government. It is also the failure of accountability at the heart of the welfare state which makes austerity possible. When people and families lack a voice or adequate representation then they must rely on others; however when these others become complicit in the centre's injustice then they are left almost totally defenceless.
This is the current situation, not only government, but many of those civil society bodies, upon which we've tended to rely, have become complicit in the injustice. There are a few honourable exceptions, but as rule the following is true:
- Major charities are afraid to speak out against government, anxious perhaps of breaching charity law or of the more recent constraints placed on their freedom
- Many of these same charities are also major service providers and their main goal seems to be to win contracts from government; and so they do not wish to upset their paymasters.
- Local advocacy groups are funded by local government or the NHS and so they need to be compliant with the local power system.
- Independent academic research is negligible. Most research is driven by government policy and government funding priorities.
Most in this sector would agree that things have never been this bad before. But nobody seems to feel it is their job to do anything about it. The great theologian Origen said:
"The power of choosing between good and evil is within the reach of all"
But this doesn't feel true when it may cost you your job or your status. This is how bad things gets worse - waiting for someone else to make a stand.
Jackson's report is a call to arms to all who care about the interests of people with a learning disability. Charities must find their voice, or they will lose their legitimacy. Advocates must speak with authority, regardless of the consequences. Academics must steps outside the boundary of academia and make their voice heard.
Today, amongst all of this pain and confusion, there are a few notes of hope. Recently Learning Disability England was formed, to bring together the voices of people, families and their allies. It is perhaps only through such unity that renewed strength can be found.
Even more recently some of us have gathered forces internationally to form Citizen Network, a cooperative movement to act and advocate for citizenship for everyone. It is only when we realise that every single one us matters, in all our diversity and frailty, that we can create a world which is safe and secure for all of us.