In 2021 we’re continuing our programme of work looking at support and opportunities for people with learning disabilities in Scotland. We’re in an election year and there are some big choices ahead for Scotland’s political parties on what they prioritise in their manifestos.
Learning disabilities were mentioned just once across all the major parties’ manifestos for the 2016 Scottish Parliament election. It is difficult to reconcile this omission with any aspiration of delivering equality in Scotland.
With the next election on the horizon, the Fraser of Allander Institute held a webinar with a range of stakeholders to discuss their priorities for the next Parliament. This article gives a taste of what we heard. It is part of a wider programme of work researching the support and opportunities available to adults with learning disabilities in Scotland.
One of our keynote speakers, Alexander Warren, spoke about his experiences of growing up with a learning disability and going on to become a professional public speaker. He talked about the need for people with learning disabilities and autism to have access to more opportunities to participate in society and the workplace – something he was told he would never accomplish.
Tangible changes are within reach
Our second keynote speaker, Ebi Eftekhar, focused on housing and spoke passionately about why this should be a priority in the next Parliament. He shared his frustration at the long wait for suitable accommodation to become available for him and some of his friends. He also articulated a feeling of being constrained by a lack of choice, with a lot of housing being in areas where he didn’t feel safe.
The pandemic has changed support services beyond recognition
Harm caused by COVID-19 on support services is a key concern. Issues ranged from the closure of day centres to restrictions on visits from social workers or to residential care settings. The pandemic has highlighted how vital this support is if people with learning disabilities are to be able to live the life they choose.
Unpaid care is not sustainable
There was concern that a “new normal” will emerge, in which the role that unpaid carers have played in this emergency situation becomes a more permanent replacement for some support services. The impact of this on the carers, as well as people with learning disabilities themselves, has been extremely difficult to manage and cannot be sustained.
Digital access must be available to all
The pandemic has pushed more of our everyday lives online and this might open up opportunities to connect people with learning disabilities with their communities in more imaginative ways. However, for those who struggle to access digital systems, this might lead to further isolation and exclusion.
Human rights need to be safeguarded and can’t be put to one side in a crisis
All of Scotland’s major political parties want Scotland to be a human rights respecting nation. But in order to deliver this in reality, the concerns raised need to be seen in the context of human rights frameworks such as the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. Much of what was discussed is linked to human rights – concern over the social security system, the use of guardianship orders, discrimination in the labour market and the invisibility of people with learning disabilities in COVID-19 data are just some examples.
Progress to improve people’s lives has been too slow
Throughout the webinar, there was a noticeable common theme cutting across all the issues that were raised – a sense of frustration and anger at a lack of progress. These issues are not new and it was commented that the webinar would have sounded very similar had it been held 10 years ago. One person pointed out that engagement from policy makers felt “tokenistic”.
Attitudes towards people with learning disabilities need to change
Many of the contributions were not related to a specific policy priority for the next Parliament, but rather a more general wish for attitudes to change both amongst those who work in government and society in general.
Health outcomes must improve
The wide inequality of health outcomes between people with learning disabilities and the rest of the population was discussed. It was pointed out that the pandemic has only exacerbated these existing inequalities. The long-term health impacts of the pandemic for adults with learning disabilities will be wide ranging and are not yet fully understood. There was some concern that this is not recognised by policy makers.
Better data is essential for evidenced based policy making
A couple of discussions were centred around the need for more informative data on outcomes for adults with learning disabilities. It was felt that this could improve the effectiveness of policy making and the visibility of all of the issues raised at the webinar.
The pandemic has given some people a chance to slow down and reflect
For some people, the restrictions brought about by COVID-19 allowed them to pause and take stock of what they want to do next with their lives. It is important to recognise that individual experiences of the last year will be different and that everyone’s voice is important in deciding what happens next. For some, going back to the status quo is not what they want.
As the election approaches, our recovery from the pandemic is likely to dominate public debate. How policy makers respond to the issues raised in this webinar will be key in determining what kind of recovery people with learning disabilities will experience.
Dean of External Engagement in the College of Social Sciences at Glasgow University and previously director of the Fraser of Allander Institute.