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Exploring learning disabilities: supporting belonging
Exploring learning disabilities: supporting belonging

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5 The present

There have undoubtedly been significant changes for the better in the lives of people with learning disabilities since the large institutions closed. Bernie is not alone in enjoying a far better quality of life. However, the fight to secure the gains made since 1950 is not over. One of the big debates is around inclusion versus specialist provision.

Valuing People made ‘inclusion’ one of its four principles. This has subsequently been interpreted by governments as meaning that specialist provision, such as the day centre Bernie attended for so long, might be closed in favour of encouraging learning-disabled people to join in the leisure activities other people enjoy. This can be all well and good in theory, but sometimes this can raise practical problems, like affordability, discrimination, access and transport.

Clare, Elinor’s mother, discusses the problems that are still faced in the present day:

One of the problems, despite the substantial and welcome changes in attitude that Valuing People helped happen, has been a tendency to throw the baby out with the bathwater, so to speak. And for me it speaks to the near impossible task of speaking about different levels of learning disability at the same time. There are day centres that offer opportunities for friendship and meaningful lives – my daughter goes to one 2 days a week – particularly for people with more severe learning disabilities.

The closure of many day centres did not lead to better quality of life for many people ­ rather the reverse, as actually it has been difficult to find ways of providing ‘community activities’. In fact it can increase social isolation.

Employment is not an option for people like Elinor. Family carers have relied on the regular hours of day centres to enable them to go out to work. If people are living with their families, the needs of everyone should be taken into account [Care Act 2014] and it’s asking a lot of families to manage all their relative’s support from home. As family carers say sometimes (though I didn’t feel this) they don’t want their home to become a work place, or manage staff.

The key issue here is choice: not getting rid of day centres or village communities but offering many alternatives so people can choose. These alternatives should offer something to the immense range of different and diverse people that make up ‘people with learning disabilities’.

You will encounter similar debates throughout the course, particularly in Session 8.