People with learning difficulties are not ill – but Theresa May’s gaffe is typical

Published by The Guardian (17th May, 2017)

My daughter has learning difficulties. She was born with them 24 years ago and they will always be part of her life. Since they are at the most profound end of the spectrum and complicated by epilepsy she is unable to walk, talk or see. She needs full-time care and state support. But most importantly she is an adorable human being and a lively individual.

Since her birth I have endured mild bouts of depression along with deriving much joy, like many parents who finds their lives suddenly disrupted by birth of a child with disabilities. The temporary slumps have not been too destabilising. Other people suffer far more severe mental health problems. Thankfully, society is starting to show more appreciation of their conditions with growing support from all political parties.

This highlights the huge difference between a person with a learning difficulty and one with mental health issues. One has a reduced, or unconventional, intellectual ability that may impact on their entire life. The other has a health problem, which might be devastating and recurring but can often be treatable. The conditions, the challenges, the care needs are very different. And this is why I was left so dismayed by Theresa May’s brief encounter with an angry voter on Monday.

What hope is there that society will ever embrace the estimated 1.5 million people with some form of learning difficulty when even the prime minister – the person at the pinnacle of our public services – muddles them up with people with mental health problems? Because when May was confronted in Oxfordshire by a woman asking if she was going to help people with learning difficulties, she responded by saying ‘we have a lot of plans for people with mental health in particular’ until corrected by her forthright interlocutor.

This is, sadly, all too typical. Life can be tough enough for people with physical disabilities in Britain, since for many it remains a shameful struggle to engage with wider society. For all the discussion of diversity, often this excludes disability. This is why comics get away with jibes at disabled people when they would be rightly banished for racist jokes. And just this week we saw the Conservatives announce plans to make bigger companies disclose pay gaps by gender and ethnicity – but not for disability.

Yet exclusion of people with learning difficulties, even those with mild conditions who just take slightly longer to process new skills, is even more extreme. Almost half of people in Britain with disabilities are in work, which is unacceptable but the rate is slowly rising. For those with learning difficulties there is a woeful 6% employment rate, despite welcome moves by some progressive firms such as technology outfits successfully hiring staff with autism.

This highlights a harsh reality: people with learning difficulties are excluded to the fringes of society. Anywhere you look, from health to housing, their needs come last due to casual bigotry that treats them as lesser members of society and permeates public services. In hospitals, there is evidence of fatal indifference from medical staff. They are more likely to die earlier, their deaths then often going uninvestigated, as emerged in the Southern Health Trust scandal after a teenage boy with epilepsy drowned in a hospital bath.

With the right support people with learning difficulties can enjoy fulfilled and often independent lives contributing to communities. But too many end up trapped with elderly parents due to inadequate housing provision or placed in hospitals, assessment centres and inadequate care homes. Those getting places to live on their own tend to be dumped in tougher areas of towns where they are vulnerable to being picked on for behaving differently. In the worst instances they are abused, bullied, robbed and even killed, as seen in a series of sordid, soul-destroying recent cases.

This is why the prime minister’s slip of the tongue when confronted by a voter with learning difficulties was both depressing and revealing of wider attitudes. Yes, Kathy Mohan later revealed she has also struggled with mental health concerns. But how can we improve their lives when there is such crass misunderstanding at the highest levels of government? It is easy to blame May for her instant reaction, yet other ministers have made the same mistake and many more share her myopia. People with learning difficulties should not be seen as sick. They are simply citizens who want to participate as fully as possible in our society.

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