For most people, leaving school means an end to learning, increased independence, and the freedom to make one’s own successes and mistakes. For people with profound and multiple learning difficulties (PMLD) or severe autism, such as those abused in the Winterbourne View case, this transition is rather different.
They should have grown up in school environments which focus on aiding them to communicate in whatever way possible – whether that is through signing; through electric switches that speak for them; through using picture exchange, where users ‘trade’ symbols for items/actions they desire; or through Intensive Interaction, where child and carer engage at a deep, 1:1 level such as that found between mother and baby. Often, it can take years for these systems to be put in place adequately, and longer still for the child to develop mastery of them – and then, on leaving school, they can risk being placed in situations where these systems are not used, and their communication needs are not met. This creates the conditions that lead to abuse.
I was utterly incensed, for instance, watching Question Time this week, to hear a woman (claiming to run a charity for those with learning disabilities) talk of people she worked with in care homes ‘sitting rocking in a chair all day, just touching their mouths when they want to eat’. Whilst I know many residential homes continue the learning experience admirably throughout life, I have little doubt that the situation at Winterbourne View was similar to that described here.
The fact is (and it makes me seethe that I need to say this) that no-one should be left rocking in a chair all day – these are human beings. If someone is rocking, they are acting on the world around them: so this is an opportunity to copy them, to get their attention, to engage with them at their level, to develop reciprocity and build a desire to communicate. If someone is touching their mouth to eat, they are communicating with others – so this is an opportunity to develop other signs, perhaps to ask for more, or to introduce symbols so they can choose which item to eat first, or even what to have for dinner.
If people are delayed in their communication skills, does that mean we allow them the standard 14 years of education and then say they’ve had their fill, same as everyone else? Surely we keep teaching communication until we feel we’ve reached a natural limit. Consigning people with delayed development to be merely ‘cared for’ and not ‘taught’ just because they’re beyond school age is inhuman. Learning is a lifelong process for all of us – but even more so for those who learn less quickly and who need extra help.
The key point is this: if we lose sight of people with PMLD or autism as human beings who can, or have the potential to, communicate – however outside the bounds of ‘normal’ communication that may be – no wonder we begin to treat them as less than human. Any place where such people are cared for must also be a place of learning. Why? Because when staff treat their clients as learners with whom they must engage, not simply bodies they are caring for, then the chances of abuse are lessened. No-one who has ever engaged seriously with a non-verbal autistic person could ever speak disdainfully of them ‘rocking all day’ – because engagement builds respect. So let’s focus not on who owns care homes; but on changing them from just ‘care’ homes into extensions of schooling – into places where those with delayed abilities can continue to learn to their potential.
Forget Oxbridge, forget the perpetual obsession with who goes to what university or gets which internship: this is education at its most critical. Treat people as learners, and you treat them with respect; treat them as ‘cared for’, and they risk becoming devalued.
No human being deserves that.