A truly appalling image of contempt and abuse by a member of Mencap’s staff towards a person they were employed to support found its way online and into the press yesterday. It shows a ‘support worker’ talking on the phone and smoking a cigarette while beside her under a mountain of shopping bags is the person she is supposedly supporting.
A one-off? Just a bad apple? This is certainly what Mencap’s crisis communications seems keen to stress:
‘Mencap response to image on social media
‘We are appalled by what is happening in the picture. After seeing it we immediately took action, and have suspended the support worker in question and reported the issue to the relevant local authority safeguarding team. We take the wellbeing of the people we support extremely seriously, and we expect and train our staff to deliver high quality care and support services. What we see here would fall well below that standard. Our priority now, as always, is ensuring that we offer the highest quality of care to our beneficiaries so they live the lives they choose.”
I know good people at Mencap. I expect lots of their staff will feel deeply ashamed by the image. I’m sure that thousands of people have had their lives changed for the better with the organisation’s support. Its origins lay in campaigns which, in their day, bore the hallmarks of campaigns such as Justice for LB today: parents fighting for a better life for their children.
But if a picture paints a thousand words then the choice of words in this press statement paints a deeply worrying picture.
It suggests a culture in which the rights of people with learning disabilities are not paramount and hence one in which such behaviours are more likely to find expression. That is to say, it suggests a deep organisational problem, not simply a one-off.
The headline ‘Mencap response to image on social media’ contains such evident distancing and nowhere in the statement is there any explanation as to what it is referring to. Mencap need to own that image and wear it as a badge of dishonour – one which says to its own staff and anyone else concerned ‘we will not be this.’ Instead it has sought to reduce it to ‘an image’ and disassociate itself from it. The fact that the statement is attributed to the Regional Director of Services, not the Chief Executive also suggests a worrying attempt to downplay its seriousness.
The use of the term ‘beneficiaries’ should raise loud alarm bells. It smacks of a bygone era in which disabled people were reduced to regarding themselves and being considered fortunate objects of charity. It speaks of services ‘done to’ or ‘for’ people, not of working alongside people to realize their human rights. It is precisely such attitudes that predict cultures of abuse, because they allow power differences to prevail. The fact that the statement does not include an apology to the person concerned is also perhaps telling in this respect.
Of course, the language of ‘wellbeing’ is in the Care Act, but used here it again fails to convey the idea of people as anything other than service recipients, not human beings with rights to be treated with dignity and respect. Moreover ‘taking wellbeing seriously’ is also not the same as saying ‘our only legitimate role is to protect and promote wellbeing and if we fail, we have failed absolutely’.
And a particular stinger is the description of the behavior in the image as falling ‘well below that standard.’ Not as utterly violating Mencap’s values and principles, but as falling quite a long way below an expected standard.
It is a poor response by any measure, but taken together it also suggests a deeply ingrained psychology of ‘them and us’ at Mencap.
Of course we should look beyond the language of one press statement in arriving at such a conclusion. By way of example, I would point to the research Mencap published earlier this year which argued that employers lack the confidence to employ people with learning disabilities. As Chris Hatton then dutifully identified from Mencap’s annual report, less than 1% of its own 8000 plus staff have a learning disability. Even in its external advocacy, people with a learning disability are ‘over there’ while Mencap doesn’t practice what it preaches to others.
So what of Mencap’s capacity to ‘be the change it seeks in the world’? I think that Mencap is still to some extent trapped by its origins as an organization led by and for parents of people with learning disabilities. For every Mark Neary or Sara Ryan that place the rights of their adult children in the foreground, there are several Rosa Monckton’s favouring a ‘custodian model’ of often segregating ‘care’. For all the talk of personalization, for many people with a learning disability agency and autonomy are denied through lack of resources, oppressive practice or the attitudes of guardians. While the long stay hospitals may be gone, small-scale institutional provision persists like chickweed. Mencap are at the mercy of NHS and local authority commissioners (though they could of course refuse to run certain services or to accept contracts which drive standards below that which they consider acceptable). Given such pressures, is Mencap capable of even becoming a genuinely rights-respecting organisation?
But I also fear that organisations such as Mencap come to internalise society’s perception of their essential ‘goodness’ (characterised by fun runs & coffee mornings etc) based on prejudicial paternalistic attitudes towards the groups that they exist to serve. As a consequence they risk losing the institutional capacity for genuine self-reflection, regulation and for meaningful change. And like any large institution, in time self preservation risks overwhelming all other concerns.
So I’ll finish on some genuine questions for Mencap arising from what we saw yesterday:
- What policies and practices does Mencap have in place to respect the will and preferences of people with learning disabilities who draw on its services?
- How many people buy Mencap’s services using a personal budget or direct payment versus receiving services commissioned by the NHS or local authorities?
- How many people using Mencap’s support services have access to a self advocate?
- Can people who use services hire and fire staff and what say do they have in the running of services?
- Can people who live in Mencap supported living come and go as they please, have whatever visitors they choose, decide what to eat and when to get up and go to bed?
- What involvement do people with learning disabilities who use Mencap services have in internal monitoring, evaluation and improvement?
- What targets and strategies does Mencap have to increase the number of paid staff with a learning disabilities?
- How many complaints of abuse or poor treatment has Mencap received in the past 5 years? How many have been upheld? How many were referred to safeguarding teams or to the police?
- Is Mencap confident that the image in the press is of isolated behaviour, not behaviour which may be prevalent or at risk of being prevalent in some of its services? What steps is it taking to determine this?