Let’s imagine a disabled person and their support worker go on a bit of a shopping spree. They have a great time finding clothes and trying things on and by the end of the afternoon have quite a haul. But the disabled person is aware that the support worker is anxious about the wellbeing of her ageing mother, who has been ill, and suggests that she take a break to call home. It’s raining. They find some shelter but the ground is wet so the disabled person suggests to the support worker that she place his shopping bags on his wheelchair table while she makes the call and has a quick fag. Across the road an iPhone camera records the image. It is uploaded to Facebook and….. boom.
None of us actually know what the image that circulated via social media and found its way into the mainstream press really showed. It may show an act of abuse. It may not. But most of us, me included, have taken the characterisation of the picture at face value. In doing so we have assumed that the person using the wheelchair is a victim, without agency and we have assumed that the support worker is exploiting their power to abuse them. What does this say of our own attitudes and prejudices about the rights of people with learning disabilities?
Now, if it transpires that this was not in fact an act of abuse then an apology is certainly owed both to the accused member of staff and to the persons using the wheelchair. And at one level Mencap deserve an apology, because the photo does not in fact show a member of their staff abusing a person with a learning disability. On the other hand, Mencap issued a statement saying ‘We are appalled by what is happening in the picture’ which suggested that they believed it to be abusive practice. Their subsequent response can be therefore be taken to be to an illustration of how they respond to an image of a member of staff abusing a ‘beneficiary’ of their services. On that basis I stand by my reflections and the questions posed at the end of the post, to which I might add one more:
If there is a possibility that this image does not depict abuse by a member of Mencap’s staff, why did the organisation issue a statement that reenforces the idea that it does?