Our final blog post this week, on listening or non-listening to families, parents and disabled people comes from Mark Brown:
We don’t realise it but we – the families of children and young adults and adults with learning difficulties are immensely powerful. For decades now our stories have been used to shape aspects of health education and social care policy and with it the lives of tens if not hundreds of thousands. And with those stories and those policies have gone budgets of hundreds of millions of pounds and the jobs and livelihoods of a significant sector of the health, education and social care economy.
For me the problem isn’t always that we aren’t being listened to – it’s that once we have spoken – our stories and experiences are increasingly being manipulated, miss-used and appropriated. It happens to us as individuals and it happens to us as a community. The art of listening and not listening to families has become a significant weapon in the macro and micro-politics of power and we are subject to it as individuals and as a community. I’ll start with how we are listened to as individual families.
Listening and not listening to Individual Families
One of the first things that may happen to us, is that the practitioner or organisation concerned will decide if you are somebody who should or needs to be listened to, or if your opinions can be thrown onto the can be dismissed pile. I’ll come back to the can be dismissed pile a bit later. But if your opinion survives the initial assessment, a decision will then be made about whether your opinion is problematic or useful.
Useful opinions are those that make no additional demands on services. They can be especially useful if they can be used as evidence of what a good service is being provided. Whereas problematic opinions are those that have to be listened to but which demand a level, or approach to service provision that requires additional or atypical resources.
How these problematic opinions are dealt with will depend upon the ethos and expertise of the provider. The better the provider the more they will be able to deploy their resources flexibly and the more Person Centred their approach is likely to be. This kind of service provider or commissioner exists, in fact there are lots of them but the more financial pressure providers come under, the more difficult it becomes to deliver a genuinely person centred approach.
In my opinion providers who are unable to maintain or who have never had, a particularly Person or Family Centred Approach will probably begin to adopt strategies that will allow them marginalise the family. Allowing them to caste their views into the can be dismissed pile. Practitioners have a range of tools at their disposal that allow them to dismiss the views of family members and the Mental Capacity Act has become a particularly useful way of dealing with problematic family members. But it isn’t confined to that.
For those with younger children one of the most effective ways of dismissing the opinions of families was to assert that a parent had failed to adjust to their child’s diagnosis or disability. Parental demands for additional or specialist support – beyond that which was being offered – were clear evidence that a parent hadn’t yet come to terms with a diagnosis. This is seen as particularly in the case of family members who have demanded expensive out of area provision or really outrageous things like – speech therapy. Fortunately the SEND Tribunal and the Courts haven’t always agreed.
But the broader problem is that the consequence of not listening to the views of families isn’t just that a child, young person or adult may not get the speech therapy they need. The problem is that they may not get the support they need when taking a bath. They may not get the support they need to be able to manage their behaviour well enough to be able to keep themselves within their community, and then of course they may not even get the healthcare they need to keep them alive.
Listening and not listening to our community
But the Art of Listening and Not Listening is not just confined to us as individual families. We are listened and not listened to as a community. For generations learning disability was excluded from our society and it wasn’t until the post war period that things began to change at all. As for the voice of families in my opinion this didn’t really begin until Caroline Glendinning wrote Unshared Care: Parents and their Disabled Children in 1983. In the years after that York and a number of other Universities, working in partnership with the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, conducted a stream of research which genuinely listened to the voices of families. At first the focus was on the “burden” of care but with an increasing acknowledgement of the rights of disabled people, the focus turned to the creative ways in which families sought to overcome their challenges in a way that was positive and inclusive. Bryony Beresford’s Positively Parents is an excellent example of how researchers have been able to listen to and represent the voices of families not only as the carers of their children but also as their champions.
Through the late nineties and well into the first decade of the 21st Century, researchers and a good number of practitioners displayed a genuine commitment to representing the voices of families and adults with leaning difficulties. It was a genuine attempt to transform the lives of people with learning difficulties regardless of their age. Eventually this research paid off and in my opinion initiatives like Valuing People, Early Support and Aiming High for Disabled Children reflected some of the positive outcomes that listening to the voices of people with learning difficulties and to their families were able to bring.
The ethos of this process was carried into the work that the current government put into The Care Act 2014 and the Children and Families Act 2014. Families and adults with learning difficulties have been closely involved in both but I believe there is a fundamental difference in the way in which the voices of families in particular have been listened to and used. Whilst far from perfect the policy developed out of the research carried out in the late nineties and early 21st Century, genuinely used people’s experiences and opinions to inform policy development and implementation. In contrast to this the Children and Families Act in particular, has used the experiences of some families far more than those of others and as a result the policy has been skewed toward the interests of those groups within our community who were more active and whose entitlements the government felt more inclined to support.
Well that’s my opinion and we won’t really know if I’m right until we’ve had a decade of children being excluded from schools and of adults not getting the support they are entitled to because the Care Act hasn’t been adequately funded. The problem is that even then we will struggle to know, because most of the people who aren’t getting a decent service or who challenge the practice of providers – will have had their opinions placed upon the can be dismissed pile and the Art and the Politics of listening and not listening to families will have come full circle and the family that can be dismissed has become a community that can be divided, marginalised and discarded.
But it doesn’t have to be like this….