The BBC Panorama programme concerning abuse of vulnerable people at Whorlton Hall has been commented on muchly on social media by supporters and advocates of autistic people and those with learning and mental health disabilities. Yet another round of shock and horror is circuiting among people who know and have firsthand experience of this type of abuse. Quite rightly, many of us will be asking why this is still allowed to happen.
Why is it that the most vulnerable in society are too often seen as less than human? Do the perpetrators fail to realise any one of them can become disabled at any time? Mental health breakdowns can happen to anyone. Nobody expects their child to be identified as being autistic or learning disabled. How would these perpetrators feel if their loved one received “treatment” in one of these hospitals? Professor of clinical psychology and disability Glynis Murphy reportedly told Panorama: “I think it is like psychological torture, because she is stuck there, she can’t get away. It is a secure unit. And they are deliberately taunting her and deliberately upsetting her.”
So why will I not be watching the programme? The BBC’s remit to “Inform, Educate and Entertain” still stands today, as it did at its outset. I do not need to be informed of these types of abuse; I know they happen. They happen in locked units, in schools and the wider community. They happen in the workplace. There is, too often, the playground bully who grew up getting a thrill out of tormenting a vulnerable person. I know this because I hear stories from individuals who have experienced this first hand. I have also been caught up in discriminatory practices. Educated? About what? The scandal? The abuse? How to perform such awful acts and not get caught?
So it comes down to entertainment. In a society with a thumb on the social media share buttons, we are quick to indulge in voyeuristic behaviour. We are quick to show our disgust but not, it seems, as quick to take action. Campaigner Kevin Healey, set up a petition to present to the UK Government to get places such as Whorlton Hall shut down and succeeded in getting less than 50k signatures. As he pointed out, animal welfare petitions get more interest. Is a human life worth less than that of an animal? It seems so.
At the centre of the Panorama programmes are real human beings of worth and value. They have families that care about them; love them. They are also families for whom there is little support. I hear from many people whose children get an autism diagnosis and that’s it. No education or support is offered to families on what autism is, exactly and how best to support and nurture their children. The wait for diagnosis is getting longer and parents have to fight harder. I will not sit on my lovely leather recliner and watch somebody else’s child, brother, sister or parent being abused. To do so would be, in my opinion, voyeurism.
What I will do is continue to present autism and learning disability in a human context. We all have abilities; we all have value. When all we see is the disability, we lower the bar of expectation. We stop providing positive life experiences, affirmation and encouragement. All of us in the autistic community have feelings, human feelings. To say we lack empathy is a myth and reading comments of dismay and horror on social media platforms from autistic people is testimony to this.
Campaigners such as Anna Kennedy, whose two sons are both autistic, work tirelessly within the community to raise awareness of what autistic people can and are achieving. Her “Autisms Got Talent” show has been running for a number of years and has contestants from all over the world. She recently told Charity Today, “Autism’s Got Talent is a platform given to talented individuals with autism enabling them to show off their skills and talents. We not only have soloists, but people also perform in groups, which is something many people are quick to judge as impossible for those on the spectrum. Not only are these talented, amazing individuals proving their critics wrong, they are also having fun and achieving so much!” These are people who, in other circumstances could easily be in the video footage of yet another undercover documentary maker.
I look at the guest book from the autism training workshop I ran yesterday. I read comments such as “I have learned that supporting someone with autism is about looking for positives”. Other comments are “Life transforming”, “Inspirational”. It’s up to us, autistic or not, to recognise the humanity of others who are different by default and work a little bit harder to making society more inclusive for everyone.
#annakennedy #kevinhealey #differentbydefault