Thursday, March 06, 2008

Learning Difficulties - or is there more to it?

The headline: "Learning Difficulty adults degraded" screamed for attention. I am one who will always campaign for the rights of the disabled. I urge you to read the article above, but if you haven't got time, you can read the following summary:
A Joint Committee on Human Rights for the UK Parliament has found that there is widespread mistreatment of adults with "learning difficulties" throughout Britain. Two specific cases were highlighted:
  1. A man with Down's Syndrome was locked in a minibus for a whole night and his foot was broken by one of the so-called carers.
  2. A 20 year old died as a result of serious health problems after spending 96 days (Almost 14 weeks) in an NHS psychiatric assessment unit without the appropriate staff to support him.

This makes my blood boil that people so vulnerable can be treated in such a cavalier and uncaring fashion, and I hope and pray that now that the Joint Committee has exposed the abuse, that there will be swift action and that those responsible for harmful abuse, as in the case of the Down's Syndrome man will be dismissed and never allowed to work with disabled people or any child ever again, and where neglect is the problem that will be attended to.

However I would like to address an issue that also irritates me and that is how the media refer to such people. It seems that in an attempt to be politically correct, the term intellectual/mental disability is being shunned and the term Learning Difficulty is put in its place.

Here's where I stand on this - Learning Difficulty does not accurately or completely describe what these people are experiencing - true, as a result of the 'problem' they may experience "Learning difficulties" - but the learning difficulty is not the sum total of their challenge. Also,

Generally "learning difficulties" are associated with children, and we do not usually associate learning with adults in other contexts - Even when we talk about an adult who is undergoing tertiary education or further training, we tend to prefer the term "studying" or "training" - Thus this very term is a put down as it immediately associates them with children. Also, we seem to have no problem acknowledging if a person is physically disabled referring to the disability as a disability and not creating unnecessary euphemisms, and where people do try to do this, the disabled person will usually give them short-shrift, and tell them, I'm blind/paraplegic/have cerebral palsy and if you can't handle that fact, you are the one with the issue - not me. The thing is, due to the nature of the problem, people with intellectual disabilities are unable to understand the issue and its implications - so well-meaning people such as myself attempt to speak on their behalf. My contention is that by euphemising (if that is not a word - it should be) you are implying that there is something shameful about the fact that the person has an intellectual disability.

Not too long ago, it was regarded as something shameful to have cancer. If the term was used at all, it was whispered. When HIV and AIDS first reared its head, due to the way the disease is tranmitted from one person to another, it had such a huge stigma. Now thankfully most people are more sensible about these things realise that they are diseases and that being ashamed is pointless and unhelpful. Instead, realising that one has the disease, one can get the necessary intervention, that if it cannot cure it, can at least, make our lives easier with it.

Well there is no shame in having a intellectual disability either - and as soon we send that message load and clear, we can also more easily tackle the abuse spoken about in the article.

Another aspect of the labelling such people as having "learning difficulties" is that those with real learnig difficulties, such as people who cnnot read (maybe due to dyslexia) or struggle to retain information, are bracketed together with people who have intellectual disability and thus unnecessarily stigmatises them, and may hinder any remedial action to help the person who cannot read from learning to read. This will stigmatise learning difficulties and thus people who experience barriers to learning may resist getting help and will suffer in silence rather than expose their deep secret.

Let us fight stigma in all its forms so that we can be more caring communities that accept all people as they are and realise that no matter what difficulties a person experiences in life, that they are accepted and valued and not discriminated against.

I really want comments on this one!