Discarding the disabled

Ann Farmer
May 27, 2019
Reproduced with Permission

Stories of appalling treatment told by the parents of mentally disabled children locked up in secure mental health units where, once confined under the Mental Health Act, they are powerless to free them reinforce the findings of appalling abuse reported recently on BBC's Panorama.

A journalist went undercover as an employee at Whorlton Hall, a small hospital in County Durham. It was rated "good" by the Care Quality Commission (CQC) in 2017 and was inspected 225 times in just 16 months. But the journalist's filming shows staff cruelly taunting and mistreating already disturbed patients.

The television exposé was a re-run of similar abuse at Winterbourne View in 2012, where CQC regulators took a "box-ticking and bureaucracy" approach rather than employing in-depth investigation.

Ten staff members from Whorlton Hall have now been arrested and Government Care Minister Caroline Dinenage has condemned the abuse as "appalling".

She told Parliament she was "deeply sorry that this has happened" and that immediate steps had been taken to ensure patients' safety as soon as the Government and the CQC learned of the situation. The government will now ensure that when "someone with a learning disability or an autistic person has to be an inpatient out of area, they will be now visited every six weeks if they are a child or every eight weeks if they are an adult."

Ms Dinenage insisted: "We won't tolerate having people out of sight and out of mind."

Really? Although there is a Minister for Disabled People - one Justin Tomlinson -- such patients "fall through the cracks" of government responsibility. This still happens even though this Government has painted itslf as a champion of "mental health".

Only this year it announced that "self-care and mental health" would be the new "focus of Government's new education guidance".

The painful scenes in the BBC exposé take the shine off two sentences in Mrs May's farewell speech last week: "the unique privilege of this office is to use this platform to give a voice to the voiceless, to fight the burning injustices that still scar our society. That is why I put proper funding for mental health at the heart of our NHS long-term plan."

In October 2018 a minister for suicide prevention, Jackie Doyle-Price, was appointed to coincide with World Mental Health Day. However, she is burdened with many other responsibilities. As Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Mental Health, Inequalities and Suicide Prevention, she also leads on policy for mental health, suicide prevention, maternity care, women's health and children's health, prison health services, health and work, blood and transplants, including organ donation, as well as quality and safety of mental health services and vulnerable groups.

What happens if the interests of all these categories clash?

The danger of being a "champion of minorities" is that the fashionable figures who drive social policy tend to ignore the less fashionable ones. Unlike other minorities, the right to life of disabled people has always been provisional when it clashes with the women's "right to abortion". Penny Mordaunt, appointed Secretary of State for Defence earlier this month, is still Minister for Women and Equalities, but as Development Secretary she championed "abortion rights", vowing to bestow them on the grateful poor of the world.

If she believes in the right of women to abort disabled babies, then the rights of disabled people will always come a poor second.

Conservative peer Lord Shinkwin, himself disabled, highlighted this uncomfortable fact when he asked for a meeting with the Department of Health to discuss why people with Down's syndrome had not been consulted regarding the introduction of the non-invasive prenatal testing (NIPT), predicted to increase the numbers of Down's babies aborted.

A critic of abortion, Lord Shinkwin campaigned to equalise the abortion time limit (currently set at birth for disabled unborn babies). He became involved in a stand-off with the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) after he responded to an advertisement specifically for the post of disability commissioner. After being appointed and just 36 hours before his first board meeting the EHRC decided to abolish the role; he would simply be a commissioner and he would not lead on disability issues.

There is no pre-natal test for autism and related conditions, but if there were the abortion rate would probably rival that for Down's syndrome, which is over 90 percent of affected pregnancies.

Whichever way we look at it - whether locked away in secure units to be abused, or killed and quietly disposed of before birth -- the disabled are "out of sight, out of mind".

Their abusers may be brought to justice, but we will never eliminate their vile prejudices until we protect the lives of these helpless people from the very beginning.