Britain is callously indifferent to disabled people
Published by The Daily Telegraph (16th January, 2021)
When I asked my doughty friend, a working mum on the other side of London, how she was bearing up in this latest lockdown, her reply was frighteningly stark: ‘I am left broken.’ She has a teenage daughter with learning disabilities whom she loves to bits and makes her laugh. But this young woman needs help eating and drinking, uses a wheelchair, sleeps just three hours a night and has challenging behaviour. Schools are out, support systems have collapsed, activities are shut down. It is cold and raining, so even a walk in the park is a miserable struggle. And the final straw is a demand to hear ‘We Wish You A Merry Christmas’ every waking moment.
She is a tough cookie, so will survive these torturous times. I hope. But like others in similar situations, she is struggling amid the pressures of pandemic. Some are cracking. ’One woman told me she closed the door after sending her child to school, lay down on the floor and cried all morning when I asked what she’d done that day,’ said Katie Clarke, co-founder of Bringing Us Together, a group for parents of disabled young people. ‘Another said I was the first adult she had spoken to all week. We’ve been ignored from the start. It feels like we are so alone.’
These are difficult days for many. But for citizens with disabilities and their families, the stresses are intensified and struggles inflamed. They speak of anxiety, desperation, exhaustion, fear and isolation. Above all, they talk of feeling forgotten and swept aside, with their priorities always at bottom of any pile. This pandemic has shone fierce spotlight on the economy, government and our society, exposing strengths and weaknesses with ruthless efficiency. Sadly, it revealed again a disturbing truth: people with disabilities – especially those with learning disabilities – are shunted aside with casual ease.
We entered this crisis with a collapsing care system. One consequence was people with autism and learning disabilities locked up, abused and drugged in psychiatric units instead of supported in their communities. The lack of concern reflects wider attitudes. Real-term spending on social care fell £300m over the previous decade despite surging demand from older and especially working-age people, while NHS funds rose by about £26bn. There was endless fury over health ‘cuts’. But silence largely on social care beyond hollow pledges of reform despite dire staff shortages, dreadful frontline pay and corporate fat cats stealthily milking the shattered system.
Then came coronavirus. Infected people were shifted into care homes with deadly consequences, the domiciliary sector offered pathetic advice or just ignored, hard-fought legal rights rapidly removed, essential treatments were halted, and schools were opened and shut. Distressing bigotry was exposed by blanket ‘do not resuscitate’ notices imposed on people with learning disabilities and lurked behind the arguments of those who dismiss lives of people with ‘underlying health conditions’ so freely. Even now, where is the outcry over figures indicating three-fifths of Covid deaths involved people with disabilities – or fatality rates almost four times higher for people with learning disabilities than fellow citizens? Do their lives not matter too?
Then there is a blizzard of new rules that can have devastating consequences, the maze of shielding restrictions oblivious to the diversity of human lives. Why, for instance, should a young woman with autism in supported living be treated with similar caution to an old man in a care home, stopped from seeing family? People exempted from wearing masks have been abused, leaving some frightened to leave homes, while those with learning disabilities can struggle with concepts of social distancing. Citizens with visual impairment who happily navigated their local neighbourhoods suddenly find themselves confronted with baffling new queues on streets and one-way systems in shops.
There are a few rays of light. There is recognition of the crucial role performed by carers, even if much of the discussion focuses only on older folk. The pandemic has reminded people of the importance of community in our lives, with fantastic support systems springing up to provide lifelines for shielding neighbours. Yet it is hard to be optimistic when the economy has been damaged and people with disabilities already suffer such low employment rates, or while fearing local authority services will be hit again when the Government seeks to pay off gigantic bills.
This disease has proved that people with disabilities are at best an afterthought in our country – and at worst, forgotten. It has shown the hypocrisy of a heated diversity debate that sweeps aside the most excluded group despite terrible housing, employment, poverty and social interaction. The UK has 11m people with disabilities and before the Covid catastrophe, a survey by Scope found half felt left out of society and even more were lonely or depressed. But who really cares? Even in a deadly pandemic, there seems callous indifference to their plight.