Yesterday was Human Rights Day. It was also the day we have read about the horrific torture and human rights abuses at Guantanamo Bay. It’s sickening to think how we can inflict such torture and abuse on one other. As a human being I somehow feel horribly connected to both the perpetrators and the victims. I also believe there is a horrifying and devastating connection with how people with learning disabilities are treated in the UK today.
We create situations where people with learning disabilities are rendered powerless and dependent on us and the state. We put people into abusive forgotten environments like assessment and treatment units, care homes and day centres in the false belief that it will help them and us, being here will keep people safe.
How can we hide from our collective power, our collective guilt and our collective compliance with the disempowerment, abuse and denial of people’s basic human rights?
We all know stories of people with learning disabilities who have died, been pinned down, punished, tormented, bullied, mothers with learning disabilities who have lost the right to care for their children, people denied a key to their own room, denied basic choices, what to eat for tea, when to go to bed, when to have a bath, when to go out, the list goes on and on and on.
There are a different set of rules if you have a learning disability: sexual violence is called an ‘attack’, rape is often not seen as ‘rape’, volunteering is called ’employment’, post traumatic stress is called ‘challenging behaviour’. Your children being taken away from your care is ‘in the best interests of the child’ so grieving traumatised mothers are left to drown and numb their sorrows in cocktails of drink, drugs and often violent relationships with men who abuse and target their fragile and heartbroken state of mind.
We are desensitised but complicit with these human rights abuses and lies.
On the ladder of power, people with learning disabilities are still at the bottom.
We are panicking now, as we slowly realise and acknowledge the services and systems that we have created to keep people with learning disabilities safe are there to contain and hide people, not heal and nurture, to disempower and deny rights, not empower and respect people as equal citizens.
So what can we do? Neil Crowther recently drew our attention in his blog, to Michael Bach’s idea, that there needs to be a Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Many people with learning disabilities, as well as Nelson Mandela and others, have an amazing capacity for forgiveness, but what do we offer in return? We still offer paternalistic and often patronising solutions. Solutions not led by employed powerful leaders with learning disabilities. Sara Ryan, Connor Sparrowhawk’s mother suggested in her recent blog:’ We have never really moved beyond this perception of learning disabled people as deficient, worthless, burdensome and a problem.’
In my opinion, we urgently need a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, or something similar, because in the words of Desmond Tutu who ran the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa:
‘The Reconciliation exposes the awfulness, the abuse, the hurt, the truth, because in the end only an honest confrontation with reality can bring healing. Superficial reconciliation can bring only superficial healing’
There needs to be true healing and true and honest sharing of power. In order to do this we must all look at what we have done wrong. We cannot expect forgiveness if we can’t admit we have done anything wrong. How can we move forward if we can’t acknowledge the wrongs of the past and the wrongs in our present?
In Maya Angelou’s poem at Bill Clinton’s first inaugural she said:
‘History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived, and if faced with courage, need not be lived again’.
I hear people with learning disabilities and their loved ones asking this from us too. An acknowledgement and a seeing of the pain and harm that has been inflicted on the learning disabled community and their loved ones, in order to move forward in a different way. I’m just very worried its not being truly heard.