The shocking case of Whorlton Hall or How has this been allowed to happen again? | by Katrina Scior
By Katrina Scior, on 22 May 2019
This evening yet another BBC Panorama programme was screened featuring undercover footage of people with learning disabilities being victimised and abused by those tasked with caring for them. Like many in the learning disability ‘community’, I watched with a sense of shock and despair as a whole number of care staff again and again taunted and assaulted the people in their care, apparently for their own entertainment. We were here before, when in May 2011 another Panorama programme showed adults with learning disabilities and autism being demeaned, repeatedly abused and assaulted at Winterbourne View. After said programme, there was a public outcry and the government held an enquiry, chaired by Sir Stephen Bubb, that led to the Transforming Care programme. A huge amount of work has gone into Transforming Care, aimed to achieve better lives for people with learning disabilities and to reduce the risk of infringements against their most fundamental human rights by those on whom they are dependent for daily support. Following a high-profile court case, six care workers were given prison terms for what the judge called “cruel, callous and degrading” abuse of the individuals in their care. So how is it possible that we are here again? Without providing an exhaustive list of the many complex reasons, in this blog I want to touch on a few. As a psychologist, my immediate response is that humans are capable of doing unspeakable things to other humans – for extreme examples we only need to look to Victoria Climbie and Baby P (or rather Peter Connelly), Syria or indeed Whorlton Hall and Winterbourne View. For much more regular reminders of our inborn capacity for aggression, putting others down and looking after our own interests, we only need to look to regular anecdotes and media reports of abuse that children, older adults, or persons with learning disabilities suffer at the hands of those responsible for their care. It is for this very reason, due to the dark and base elements that lurk in all of us, that we need independent inspections of care services by the likes of the Care Quality Commission (CQC), and effective whistleblowing policies. No system of regulation or inspection will ever be effective though if those at the front line of care services are not offered high quality, regular supervision that allows them a safe and containing space to voice and process uncomfortable, perhaps unpalatable feelings and thoughts evoked during the course of their work. No system of regulation or inspections will ever be effective as long as potential whistle blowers fear that reporting what they have witnessed will ultimately result in them being forced out and see their livelihood threatened. And no policy, regulation or inspections will ever be effective if market driven care systems exponentially increase the risk that quality of care gets comprised at the altar of profit. Reminders of the dangers of getting richer from caring for people have come from many fronts recently, not least mental health services for children and young people. Is that all there is to it though?
One question appeared all over social media while Panorama was still being aired: “How has this been allowed to happen again?” Sir Stephen says he warned the government four years ago that there will be more scandals like Winterbourne View while we have similar institutions. Without question he is right and it is very heartening to see Alice, one of her carers’ prime targets for abuse, happily settled in her new home. Cygnet, the company who ran Whorlton Hall, we are told saw installation of CCTV footage in all communal areas of Whorlton Hall as part of the answer. I have no doubt that surveillance of care staff may reduce instances of abuse and that the end of institutions cannot come a second too soon. However, as a stigma researcher I look not only to individuals and services but to communities and society at large for answers to the question how this was allowed to happen again. Whorlton Hall was closed a few hours before Panorama went live – unless we face up to why our society “allows” people with learning disabilities to be demeaned and abused, not only in failing institutions and care homes but in many areas of everyday life, we will continue to collude with conditions in which persons with learning disabilities are viewed and treated as less than human. As noted in Stigma and intellectual disability: Stepping out from the margins, a book I had the pleasure to co-edit with Shirli Werner, “While attitudes to people with intellectual disability in many parts of the world have undoubtedly improved over time, evidence suggests that their position near the bottom of the social hierarchy remains largely unchanged.” I fear we will find ourselves here again unless society does much more to challenge disablism and learns to view persons with learning disabilities not primarily as people who can’t, defined by their limitations, but rather as people who like all of us have a rainbow of qualities, weaknesses and strengths. It is the deep-seated belief that people with disabilities are inferior and the associated disdain in which society holds them, that are at the root of both daily microaggressions and instances of horrendous abuse. As Katherine Quarmby noted some years ago in her report on disability hate crime for Scope, Getting Away With Murder (a must-read), hate crimes against people with learning disabilities are anything but ‘motiveless’, language commonly used in the media and legal system. Instead, Quarmby argues, the common motivating factor in acts of abuse and violence (such as the ones caught on camera at Winterbourne View and now Whorlton Hall) stares us in the face: a hostility and contempt for disabled people based on the view that they are inferior and do not matter. Thus, it is not because the residents of Whorlton Hall happened to have learning disabilities, but for the very fact that they did, that abuse against them was allowed to continue for months and years until eventually caught on camera by an undercover reporter.
Once the outrage that will inevitably and rightly follow this Panorama broadcast has died down, we must continue to ask searching questions about the way in which we provide care for society’s most vulnerable while taking urgent action to reduce the risk of further Winterbournes and Whorlton Halls. In doing so we must avoid quick-fix solutions that help government or individuals to score points or indeed companies to profit. Importantly, in our search for actions that reduce the risk of this happening again and again, we must recognise that few instances will attract the intense attention of a BBC broadcast, yet prejudice, discrimination, and microaggressions are an everyday reality for most children, young people and adults with learning disabilities. What we have learnt from the civil rights movement, feminism and the disability rights movement (in which self-advocates with learning disabilities have sadly mostly been very marginal), is that lasting change will only come if people with learning disabilities lead the charge against the daily undermining of their equal status and rights. Change will only come if they lead the fight to be treated as equal and valued citizens, knowing that they can call on support from those without learning disabilities but ultimately controlling what that support looks like. It will only come, when societies accept that many of their members, for a host of reasons, learning disability or not, may need support and adjustments to the way things are usually done in order to contribute to their communities and achieve their full potential, and that this may well cost a lot of money. It will only come, when both we, as individual citizens and tax payers, and successive governments accept that the costs of offering high-quality support to persons with learning disabilities and their families, even when such support goes way beyond cost-free or low-cost reasonable adjustments, are part and parcel of what it truly means to be a civilised and equal society. And finally, change will only happen if society at large and service providers attribute more value, impart better skills, and provide better support to ALL carers of people with learning disabilities.
Department of Health (2012). Transforming Care: A National Response to Winterbourne View Hospital.
Quarmby, K. (2008). Getting away with murder: Disabled people’s experiences of hate crime in the UK. London: Scope.
Scior, K. & Werner, S. (Eds) (2016). Stigma and intellectual disability: Stepping out from the Margins. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.