Is This Abuse?

One of the many things that people with learning disabilities who are employed and volunteer at CHANGE say is that by working in an organisation where people with learning disabilities have equal economic power and where power and rights are integral to all that we do, they feel deeply respected and listened to. We support people to become more resilient and to use their intuition. This may sound surprising but I think that both of these qualities are often taken away from people with learning disabilities – along with their voice and their access to information.

It is within this context that one of the volunteers came to me the other day asking if the following situation in her residential home was ok because intiuitively she felt that it wasn’t:

‘A male agency support worker undressed me, then left me on my bed undressed while he went out of the room. As I use a wheelchair I was stuck there’. She felt degraded, vulnerable and powerless. What I understood that she was asking me was  – Did she have a right to feel what she did?


I felt completely shocked. I too felt powerless and angry. I have no doubt that this is not an isolated incident in one care home. We as a society allow this to happen.

In many ways I hate the term ‘vulnerable adult’, it concerns me that we need to have a ‘vulnerable’ group. It can make us feel good because we can then ‘help’ this group of people and surely this in turn means that we are good people. What and who are ‘vulnerable’ adults? Why are they so vulnerable? What makes us vulnerable economically, in our families and in our communities? Would I like to be called ‘vulnerable’? How would it affect my decisions and life choices if society saw me in this way?

How can we work together to change this? Should we?

I think that this incident raises a number of questions….is this abusive practice? Should men ever be allowed to deliver personal care to women? If women in our society are sexualised by the media and the pornography industry are we allowing women who least have a voice to be in the most disempowering of situations? I know that for me to have my personal care delivered by a male member of staff would make me feel very different than if my carer was a woman. I would feel more vulnerable – would you too? Are the issues the same for men with learning disabilities?

And what does this mean for women with learning disabilities who are put in these situations daily. How courageous and strong that they can then come to CHANGE and work together for the human rights of other people with learning disabilities, that they can get on with their lives. Or can they really?

What are we doing so that people with learning disabilities are no longer ’vulnerable’ but are empowered, strong and have economic power, role models, real hope? If people with learning disabilities were employed in that care home as advocates, peer mentors and rights workers, could we change the balance of power?

I had a fantastic discussion this week with a Healthcare Trust who are thinking about the possibility of employing adults with learning disabilities as co-workers to work in schools. They would support the young people to ensure that they are getting their needs and rights met, ensure personalisation works and understand and support the young person to talk about how they are feeling. This is a role currently done by a senior manager. We really did have tears in our eyes, both of us deeply moved by the real possibility of an immense shift in power for ‘vulnerable’ adults.

empowered woman