Are we really much better than the Greeks?

Brightly painted wooden cage-like cells, photographed in a care home in GreeceLast Friday there was a story on the BBC website on a state home for both children and adults with learning disabilities in Greece, in which some of the inmates, who have conditions including Down’s syndrome and autism, are kept locked in cages for most of the time, have no access to personal possessions and rarely leave the centre. Other abuses have been documented over the past ten years, including people tied hand and foot to their beds and one 16-year-old boy who died and was found to have swallowed bandages as a result of poor supervision. A modern centre for people disabilities exists in the area and was built with EU money and currently houses the head of an association for people with disabilities and their families, but has no residents as the Greek state has no money to staff it. The director of this centre has not been paid for a year.

I don’t think anyone in the UK should be feeling superior about this revelation. What’s puzzling is the continual surprise that this is happening in Europe in 2014, when this sort of thing has been happening in both western and eastern Europe throughout the modern era. Europe is not as civilised as we middle-class people like to think; there have been two genocides in Europe in living memory. We sat up and took notice of the Romanian orphans in 1989, but that was because we could blame Ceausescu and Communism; the Greeks were always on ‘our side’ (in fact, Ceausescu was pro-western and had enjoyed favoured trading relations with the west for years, despite Romania nominally being a Warsaw Pact country) so we did not look too closely at what went on outside the tourist resorts. We were more concerned about Mount Athos not admitting women than about disabled children being tied to beds.

There have been some horrific abuses of people, adults and children, with learning disabilities in Britain this century, let alone last. We pretend that Winterbourne View was unique, but the conditions that let it happen, including the low pay and status of carers which results in low recruitment standards, still persist. The CQC recently published a report titled “Three Lives”, one of them being that of a young autistic woman held in a cell in an NHS unit for nine years, her meals being passed to her through a letterbox, nobody going in or out, until inspectors discovered her situation and ordered her release. We are not told how many of the people in that Greek care home are local, but when learning disabled people in this country need (or are thought to need) specialist care or accommodation, they are often sent hundreds of miles from home, and often the conditions they find in these places make their condition worse. In the USA the authorities have tolerated a place that uses electric shock treatment to force autistic children and young adults to comply with their rules and to make them work. Abuse and even neglect can happen when there is plenty of money. It apparently cost more than £12,000 a week to keep the young woman in the CQC report in that bare room.

Part of the reason why such conditions persist in Greece is that the country has not seen the same level of activism and self-advocacy around disability that Britain and the USA have, and that mental disability in particular is greatly more stigmatised there than here. Greece joined the then EEC in 1986 and had been a dictatorship into the 1960s, but the same is true of Spain and Portugal and the same abuses are not reported to be going on there. If we want to improve conditions for disabled people in these homes, perhaps we should set up some kind of distress fund, much as was done for the Romanian orphans in the 90s, but we should certainly lobby the EU, and the dominant economic powers within it, not to impose austerity at the expense of the most vulnerable in the poorer parts of the EU, who after all are not responsible for the bad decisions made by those who ran their countries.

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