I’ve been reading with interest a lot of the posts and stories from the Seven Days of Action campaign, which targets the urgent need to close assessment and treatment units and enable people with learning disabilities to be supported how they and their families believe is best for them. I cannot agree more. I’ve also been keenly following the Justice for LB campaign, and yesterday, of course, there was the Hillsborough inquest judgement. All of these stories are bound together with the common thread of ‘professionals’ knowing best, and denying dignity, respect, life itself. Truth and justice denied, cover ups, blame, counter-accusations. Horrendous experiences for individuals and their families, who just want to live ordinary, decent lives.
Until very recently I worked as a Social Worker with adults who have learning disabilities. For over 2 decades I worked in day centres, specialist hospitals, and community teams. I worked closely with voluntary groups, I volunteered in music therapy groups. I led evening classes in basic education. In January I left social work, and since then I have set up a much needed local self advocacy group. I have also started volunteering with a local social enterprise which supports people with learning disabilities.
In my last job in a community team I was labelled as ‘difficult’ by managers who appeared to be more interested in that dubious concept ‘best value’ (read ‘cost cutting’) than people’s needs. They would regularly try to ignore me, not answering e-mails, or delaying their replies to my requests for money and support for people, sometimes for months. I always ‘won’ the arguments as I backed up my cases with legislation. Managers can ignore moral arguments. But they cannot ignore the law. Not for ever, anyway.
I decided to leave social work because I was bullied and falsely and maliciously accused of bad practice, after I had raised concerns about dangerous management practice. The case against me, which had no evidence whatsoever, was eventually dropped, with no hint of an apology, after I involved a solicitor. (The union, which I had paid into since 1990, was apparently powerless to effectively support me.) The managers attempted to gag me, and clearly persuaded my colleagues to ignore and isolate me. Colleagues who had themselves complained in the office about management, and had previously been supportive of my attempts to complain about dangerous practice, suddenly found themselves unable to continue their support of me! Managers also refused to let me continue working the established flexible hours and insisted I return to full time work, despite being aware of my daughters’ additional needs.
I have mixed feelings about leaving social work. I put all of my efforts into it for 25 years. My sense of social justice enabled me to continue battling in those 25 years. To the best of my ability I advocated for the people I worked with. I got the best I could. I never gave up. I prided myself on this. But when the system turned the full force of its horrendous power against me, I had no choice but to leave.
People with learning disabilities and their families do not have the luxury of this choice. They are totally dependent on this system, and I appreciate that from my perspective as an adoptive parent. Attempting to get what we believe is needed for our children is painful, frustrating, and slow. As a family we appear to be heading in the right direction at the moment, but this has taken 3 years, written and verbal complaints, assessment after assessment, and still we wait for the necessary therapy. In that time I have seen the system fail my adopted niece, who in the last 21 months has had 11 – yes, 11 – different placements, and many more social workers.
The system ain’t working. It’s crap. There’s good people working in it. And there’s bad. Leadership is lacking. Management is lacking. Human compassion is lacking. IT systems are lacking. Money is lacking. The basics are being eroded. Service providers blame the local authorities, who blame the government, who blame us. Doesn’t look like it’s going to get better anytime soon, does it? Even more reason then, that we as individuals stand up for the rights of vulnerable people in our society.
Last night in the first self advocacy group session a man told us how awful it felt for care staff to come into his home with files about him, writing things that he could not read, and spending time doing this rather than helping him prepare a meal or hoover. And that was when they turned up on time, or even just turned up, whoever it was turning up – he never knows who to expect. This man told us he did not think that he should have to feel like that in his own home. We all agreed with him. And the group will be helping him to do something about it.
My point? That the system does not work. It has no inherent interest in making things work. Its only interest is in keeping the system going. Citizen power does work though. Indeed, as Margaret Mead said, it is the ‘only’ thing that does.
‘Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.’