ITV’s soft focus on learning disability crisis

A woman and man sitting on the floor with their baby son, who has Down's syndromeLast Thursday ITV broadcast a 24-minute programme titled Against the Odds, which supposedly revealed “the reality of life for people with learning disabilities in the UK, with many experiencing harassment and violence and just 6.4% in paid work”, as part of its Tonight strand. They interviewed several families, including the parents of a boy with Down’s syndrome who had faced the suggestion that they abort him, a young woman who had participated in equestrian and running events at the Special Olympics, a man who had been the victim of public harassment when trying to live independently a few years ago, another who was bullied at school because of his condition and had been out of work for four years, and a man in his 40s with Down’s syndrome who was preparing to move into a shared house. The format of the documentary did not give enough time to investigate all these issues, but very little attempt was made even within this limited format. The programme just consisted of a procession of happy endings. (It can be viewed in the UK here for the next four weeks or so.)

There were only two stories which featured bullying or hate crime, and even then that aspect was only mentioned briefly, and it was all in the past and not recent. Nothing was said about prosecuting the people responsible, or about prosecutions for disability hate crime generally (and, for example, the fact that the police often fail to investigate the disability connection when disabled people are attacked, when it can result in increased sentences). In the first of those stories, the man returned home to live with his mother after the attacks made his life impossible, but has more recently decided to move to his mother’s home town in Kent, where he’s happy. The second man was bullied at school because of what was described as a “language disorder”, including having his head forced down the toilet. That stopped when they transferred him to a special school. As an adult, he had a good job as a receptionist but quit for reasons that were not fully explained. He was out of work for four years, during which time he became depressed — until Mencap stepped in, and found him work in McDonalds, clearing up tables.

They also interviewed a mother who had an autistic daughter, who after finding that the services available were inadequate, set up her own charity called New Hope, providing “out of school respite care for children with learning disabilities”. They didn’t explain how she got the money to do that; most people do not have the resources. The last family featured was that of a man with Down’s syndrome who had been living with his parents all his life, but his parents were getting old and their health was declining, so a local charity managed to find a house which they could adapt, so that he and three other disabled people, plus a care worker, could move in. They were still refitting the house when the programme was being made, but he and the three other residents were all interviewed briefly and were enthusiastic.

Picture of Claire Dyer, a young white woman wearing a pink and white striped T-shirt, holding pictures of Swansea City footballersThere was no mention of the fact that some families struggle for years to get access to any services for their disabled children or adult children. It doesn’t always happen that there is a local charity on hand that has the resources to buy a house and re-fit it. In some parts of the country, like London, property prices are sky-high and four- or five-bedroom houses are just way out of reach. Some people with learning disabilities do not have strong families that are able to support them for most of their adult lives. Some do not have families who have the money, know-how or connections to set up charities. It did not, of course, even mention that families are having benefits and services cut because of austerity, and it appeared to concentrate on middle-class families as nobody mentioned poverty or long-term financial difficulty. The programme did not even touch on the fact that people with learning disabilities often die because of negligence in the healthcare system, nor on the miserable way that challenging behaviour is dealt with: there is no specialist service for dealing with autistic adults in crisis, and the result is that they end up in psychiatric units, and when they say they cannot deal with them (because they are not autism specialists), they ship them to other special units often hundreds of miles from home, like Claire Dyer (left). People are spending years in some of these places, because of lack of support for them to live at home, or because they are being judged on how they behave while locked up, deprived of family and normal activity.

This documentary was rubbish. I’ve always said that if something is worth investigating, it is worth a good 45 to 60 minutes of TV time, but this programme barely scratched the surface of what it purported to investigate. It went for the feel-good factor, implying that life is generally pretty good for people with learning disabilities although there’s room for improvement. Well, it often isn’t good unless you’re from a fairly wealthy family. There is a crisis, and people are suffering and dying. ITV did not even look.

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  • M Risbrook

    Riaz asks, out of curiosity what interests you so much in learning disabilities when you do not have any yourself?