A recent BBC Panorama programme uncovered horrendous abuse taking place in an institution in the UK meant to provide care for autistic people and people with learning disabilities.  I must confess, I didn’t watch it: I have a hard enough time as it is getting a good night’s sleep.

It would be convenient to be able to pin the blame for events like these on a small group of evil people. If that were the case, though, how come we hear so many stories like this, and not just in the UK?  And it is certainly not a new phenomenon. In his ground-breaking book, NeuroTribes (2015), Steve Silberman exposed the dark history of disability and recounted stories that were as chilling as they were heart-breaking.

We could, of course, blame the Government or the regulatory authorities. Indeed, they must shoulder at least some of the responsibility, particularly if systemic problems are identified. However, no regulatory regime will ever be able to detect every single instance of abuse, given the balance of power in such institutions is tilted so far in favour of the abusers.

The real question, though, is what creates the conditions in which this type of abuse can take place? What makes it seemingly okay to demean neurodivergent people? What makes those paid to care for these people regard them as subhuman?

We need to go upstream. We need to consider societal attitudes to these types of difference. Actually, we need to confront our own attitudes.

We all like to think of ourselves as good people, especially those of us who are active in the world of disability advocacy.  We call out this type of abuse and demand that action is taken. That’s enough, surely? But can you swear on a stack of bibles (or text of your choice) that you have never, ever, said or done anything that could be construed as being disrespectful towards neurodivergent people, including people with a learning disability. Ever?

It turns out that being neurodivergent yourself doesn’t inoculate you against ableism.

I thought of myself as a perfectly nice person until the day I stumbled upon an article on ableist language that stopped me in my tracks. It made me realise I have been carrying around some pretty crappy attitudes for over forty years without ever realising it. It changed my view of the world forever.

I started to search out other articles on ableism. There weren’t that many, and most were concerned with physical disability. Then I found one with an infographic that left me deeply sad. I realised that terms that had been prevalent in my every day speech were actually cruel slurs with their origins in the clinical terms for intellectual disability. These terms were subsequently replaced with levels of mental retardation, which means that words like ‘m*ron’ have exactly the same meaning as ‘r*tard’.

Whenever I hear or see these words now – which is on a daily basis – I wince. I try mentally to substitute the word ‘fool’ (which some consider ableist as well but it somehow seems less harsh to me) but those words still hurt with a visceral pain. I brace myself whenever the current US President tweets something inflammatory because I know it will provoke a tsunami of ableist insults.

In the UK, the word ‘id*ot’ is especially popular. People tell me it’s ‘not meant like that any more’ or that it’s just an archaic meaning of the word and language changes.  Yes, that is true, though the following legal definition was only repealed in the Republic of Ireland (an hour’s drive from where I live) in December 2015:

“And the word “lunatic” shall be construed to mean any person found by inquisition idiot, lunatic, or of unsound mind, and incapable of managing himself or his affairs.”

That feels pretty recent to me.

I rarely get thanked for challenging people on this type of language. They tend to be extremely reluctant to countenance the idea that they are being in any way disrespectful. If your core belief is that you are a good person, anything that might challenge that self-perception can create real cognitive dissonance. We rarely consider the role that unconscious bias plays in our attitudes.

One form of unconscious bias is the herd effect, or ‘group think’; if a critical mass of people believe a thing to be socially acceptable, including friends and family, it effectively makes it so. Ableism is insidious. It is so commonplace that it is difficult to get people even to acknowledge its existence.

They may cite freedom of speech, which is commonly misunderstood as the right to say whatever the hell you like. Freedom of expression is actually about the right to express an opinion without interference by the state. It is also a qualified right, which means that it needs to be balanced against other fundamental human rights, such as the right not to be discriminated against on grounds of disability.  All rights carry responsibilities, and freedom of expression does not justify the ill-treatment of others, either directly or indirectly. Making level of intelligence or neurological conformity the measure of someone’s worth as a human being is a slippery slope, not to mention the foundation of the eugenics movement.

Another common defence is that querying the use of ableist sentiments is ‘political correctness’ (said with an eyeroll) or tone policing. If that is the case, is condemning misogynistic, racist or homophobic language also just ‘political correctness’?

It is not just about particular words. The real problem is the underlying idea: the idea that people with learning disabilities or other types of neurological difference are inferior, intrinsically flawed and not worthy of respect. It leads inexorably towards prejudice and discrimination against a group of people who, when placed in an institutional setting which deprives them of their liberty and autonomy, become extremely vulnerable. 

The answer to my original question is uncomfortable. It should be.

Who’s to blame for Whorlton Hall? It’s all of us.


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