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Week 13: What I learned from 10 weeks working in a large disability charity head office #LDWeek15 #107days

This post offers personal reflections about an experience just over two years ago. It is my (George Julian’s) opinion, reflections and memory. I offer it as food for thought for #LDWeek15 as JusticeforLB Week 13 continues to explore whether charities are part of the problem.

This post is not an attack on all (or any) charities for an attack’s sake; it is not fiction or exaggerated; it does not question the intention of the many, many excellent people who choose to work for a charity, although it does question the blanket assumption that all who do are quasi saints! I’ll come to that point.

My experience

After eight years working in a (very) small national organisation, trying to make a difference to people’s lives within many constraints, not least working underneath the umbrella of a very confused, multi-purpose charity, it was with joy in my heart and a spring in my step that I pitched up for the first day of a maternity cover post in the (self-named) leading learning disability charity in the UK. I was due to hold the position of Head of Research and Impact, a perfect match for my skillset and professional expertise and qualifications. Having completed a PhD looking at the education of profoundly disabled children over a decade previously, I was delighted to return to the learning disability arena and confident with a focus on research and impact had a contribution to make.

My experience was short lived however and I left after 10 weeks. There were many reasons for this, including large scale restructuring within the organisation and my complete disillusion with what I found, compared to what I’d expected!! The thoughts that follow have percolated over the last two years and I offer them now for debate and discussion.

I have written a series of general statements that emerged from my experience, I’d welcome your contributions and comments and would love to receive examples of where my generalisations are misguided, I genuinely hope a lot of them are.

1) It is incredibly difficult to critique a charity I’m not sure whether this is a uniquely British stiff upper lip, terribly polite, hold our resolve thang, but it seems to be incredibly difficult to in any way to critique the work of a charity. Invariably it is met with at least some suggestion or kick back that you’re somehow a) being unfair b) denigrating the brilliant people who choose to work for charities c) are unaware of their exceptional work and so on, and so on.

2) It is also difficult to be a dissenting voice within a charity I suspect for some similar cultural reasons as are at play in the first point, together with an unhealthy dose of confirmation bias, it is hard to truly challenge within the hallowed walls of head office. A relatively new CEO and a senior management team looking to assert themselves all too readily overlook those within their teams, rushing to squash autonomy in favour of compliant flag wavers for their latest strategic plan.

3) Not everyone who works in a charity does so because they believe in the charitable cause, nor are they necessarily exceptional at their job Pretty much like any organisation, there are good and bad within charities. A quick glance at charity accounts will show that this doesn’t always come without a cost, seemingly huge amounts of charitable funds are spent on redundancy or termination payments.

4) Not everyone in a charity is poorly paid I’m not for a minute suggesting that they should be either, however, if your CEO is taking home over £100k I’d sort of expect them to be bloody good at their jobs, and at the very least for the charity to be effective and innovative.

To give you some perspective on this, I had a quick look at Mencap’s 2014 Annual Accounts and can share that their senior management team salaries minus pension contributions (I assume it is them given they’re all on £60k plus) are as follows:

£60–70k: 8 staff members

£70-80k: 6 staff members

£80-90k: 2 staff members

£90-100k: 3 staff members

£100-110k: 1 staff member

and presumably the CEO, one staff member, takes home £130-140k.

These are not insignificant figures, and this total spend on large salaries, sits alongside 7 staff members who took home over £60k when including their termination payments (1x 60-70k, 3x 70-80k, 2x 90-100k and 1x 110-120k).

5) Excessive staff turnover or excessive staff retention – pick your poison The uninitiated may look at the salaries and termination payments above and consider 2014 an unusual year, a new CEO obviously changed the strategy at Mencap.

However a tiny dig beneath the accounts surface reveals that in addition to the 7 staff members taking home over £60k including payments when their contracts were terminated in 2014, there were 5 in 2013, 13 in 2012 and 11 in 2011.

If we assume a mid range payment in the bands offered that’s £595,000 in 2014, £615,000 in 2013, £960,000 in 2012 and £975,000 in 2011.

How can any organisation defend such waste?

6) Large, national, leading charities are no more organised, slick/devoted/competent than many smaller charities or organisations with tiny staff teams Perhaps the biggest shock for me on arrival in head office was how inefficient, uncoordinated and generally uninspiring life was. I’d fantasised about a large charity being a slick operating unit, about IT services being efficient, strategies and action plans being in place, coherent strategy and measurement processes. Who knows, maybe it is unrecognisable in its progress over the last two years, but my experience was of a chaotic and confused organisation that struggled to understand what its priorities were, never mind any of the rest.

7) Business and turnover are key In one way you could argue this is par for the course, a sign of our times, inevitable – that business should dominate charitable activity. Indeed, given the salaries paid for the management team, you’d almost welcome efficient and competent business drivers underpinning all activity, that could then ultimately improve the lives of the people it is meant to support. The reality in my experience was that money talked, anything could be written into a funding bid to secure funds, that was more important than due diligence of the activity that followed. I suspect my experience was in no way unique but it appeared that on too many levels the money tail was wagging the dog; projects and bids were devised to meet funding calls, strategic plans (where they existed) were adapted and tweaked to meet a newly funded ‘need’.

I’m no business expert, it’s not for me to say whether this is an appropriate course of action or not, I’ll leave you to make your own mind up. That said, if you have no vision, or if your vision is embedded wherever the latest pot of money is, rather than where your end beneficiaries are, you probably shouldn’t call yourself a charity!

8) You can hide anything you like with ‘good’ reporting and messaging Call me naïve but I desperately wanted to believe that the focus would be on the charitable aims I’d researched before deciding whether to take the post; campaigning, improving people’s lives, supporting learning disabled people – what’s not to like?

What I observed was that reputation was key; managing the message was as important (if not more important) then delivering on quality or improvements for learning disabled people.

If any charity believe in what they stand for, then just get on and do what you’re aiming for. For example, if your focus is on supporting learning disabled people to get work, employ them. Not one or two tokenistic people who can be sat on the reception desk and brought out for public events, I mean really employ them. If you can’t manage to walk the walk within your own organisation how the hell do you expect the rest of society to? Which leads me to my penultimate observation…

9) Beware of values that are for wallpaper not for living by! Everywhere I looked during those ten weeks I’d see value statements, they were stuck on the walls, in the lift, on the screensaver that flickered across your laptop; bold, ambitious, optimistic values, but to be honest that’s where they mostly stayed. If you have to plaster your values everywhere then they clearly aren’t embedded within your organisation.

My experience, and I’d go as far as to say those of many other colleagues there at that time, did not reflect the values being espoused. If you can’t treat your staff well, if you can’t treat the beneficiaries of your charity well, if you can’t actually make progress to what you’ve been talking about for years, maybe it’s time to shut up shop, redistribute the wealth and let some others have a go.

10) Stop speaking for – give up the power I’m not sure how anyone can be the ‘voice of’ or how it helps. Maybe it’s time to stop speaking for and just give over the power.

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Day 30: What would you do? #107days

Day 30 was adopted by Andreas Dimopolous, who managed to combine research, human rights and art history. This is what he had to say:

As a researcher, I was drawn to disability rights when I first read about the early sterilisation case law of the English courts. I developed a theoretical argument as to how to protect the rights of persons with disabilities under English law. As an academic, I am doing what I am supposed to do.

Then real life happens and kicks in the door of the ivory tower of research. The death of LB was such an event. How do I, as an academic, researcher and human being respond to this?

The central claims of my research is that we need more human rights for persons with disabilities in every single context of their daily lives. We need to enact the CRPD under UK law. We need to make every healthcare and social care professional accountable to human rights (if not by means of civil liability, then criminal liability). We need to develop awareness of persons with disabilities as bearers of rights, to which correspond correlative duties from all of us.

Faced with LB’s death, the best and most useful thing I can do is to do more research, which strengthens the central claims of my research.

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I was planning, for a long time, to submit an abstract to the Art Historians Association Conference on Hogarth’s Scene in a Madhouse. Based on the social model of disability, I considered that a reading can be made of this engraving (or the painting on which the engravings are based) which depicts the disabling gaze in the interaction of the fashionable ladies and the inmates of the asylum. The powerpoint of the presentation is here.

As the participants in the conference stream also noted, Hogarth is also ironically asking: Who is mad? What are those ‘normal’ ladies doing in a place like this? What folly is this?

Our current law and social practice, even after 300 years from Hogarth’s time, has not rendered such questions meaningless. We retain laws and practices which disable and disempower persons with disabilities. Time for change.

R.I.P. LB.

 

LB Surf Dude

Day 3: Letter for Connor #107days

12 JUNE UPDATE: The letter has been published in The Guardian today to coincide with the House of Lords debate on premature deaths of people with learning disabilities. The final text and full 560 signatures/names are available to view here. If we missed you off, or you missed the opportunity, please don’t worry. You can add your name in the comments if you wish, but there will be further opportunities to get involved with letter writing this weekend, Day 85.

We believe that the success is in the collective action, not individual names, and we’re very grateful to those who have worked hard to get this written, edited, comments taken on board, and submitted in time for today’s debate. Especially Jill and Chris. As ever thank you to all of those supporting us, whether your names are on the letter or not x

UPDATE: The revised and shortened version of this letter is below. If you would like to sign this letter, and you haven’t already provided your name, please email Jill with the email title ‘Signing in support’ and your name as you would like it added to the letter in the body of the email by June 13th. Thank you….

Justice for LB letter to The Guardian

Final draft 6th June 2014

The Guardian has reported (Guardian Society 21 May) on the preventable death of Connor Sparrowhawk  (nicknamed LB or Laughing Boy).  Connor was placed in a small, highly staffed, specialist assessment and treatment unit for people with learning disabilities (LD).  He had an epileptic seizure and, unobserved by staff, drowned in the bath. The #justicefor LB #107days campaigns are about getting justice for Connor and changing the status of people with learning disabilities and their families within services and society.

Over 3,000 people with learning disabilities and/or autism in England are in similar units at a cost of over half a billion pounds per year. People are likely to live in these units for years, to be placed a long way from home, to be treated with major tranquilising drugs and to experience self-harm, physical assaults, restraint and seclusion.  Currently, more people are being transferred into such units than are transferring out.

We believe that support for people with learning disabilities and/or autism and their families should have four basic principles:

1) We should support people to live long, healthy, fulfilling and meaningful lives.

2) A learning disability and/or autism is not a health problem.  Any additional health problems should be taken seriously and we should make sure that our health services work just as well for everyone who uses them.

3) We should respect, value and work closely with families and others who care about the person.

4) We should make sure that commissioners and providers are using the best available evidence to make decisions. 

For over 20 years we have known how to do this. We know how to provide good support for families with young children. We know how to support people’s health needs. We know how to support people, including people who are distressed, to live active, meaningful lives within their local communities without the need for specialist drugs or major tranquilisers. And we know that all of these things depend on people with learning disabilities and/or autism and their families being respected as equal citizens.

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ORIGINAL VERSION

Day 3 was adopted by Jill Bradshaw and Julie Beadle-Brown of The Tizard Centre. They have drafted the following letter. We are now looking for comments, edits or additions for this draft *and* for people who would like to sign it. We hope to gather at least 107 signatures, hopefully more. Please add any thoughts and your name as a comment to the draft. If you exist on social media anonymously but would still like to sign please email us.

Connor Sparrowhawk spent 107 days in an Assessment and Treatment Unit (ATU).  He drowned in the bath.  An independent assessment concluded that his death was preventable.  We have come together over the last months as a collection of individuals who are shocked and outraged by what happened, as a group of people understand that we are all responsible for what happens to vulnerable people in our society.

We would like to highlight the following points from the independent report:

  • The lack of appreciation of Connor’s family as having expertise about how to care for him.   It is astonishing that Connor’s brother was not allowed to visit, despite there being nothing in the policies to suggest that this was not allowed;
  • The lack of training, skills and leadership in managing epilepsy and in using person-centred approaches;
  • The lack of understanding and awareness of autism spectrum conditions;
  • The lack of practice leadership;
  • The woefully inadequate care plan;
  • The lack of understanding about mental capacity and the issues around supported decision making.

Many of the recent reviews and reports were clear that the majority of people living in ATUs should not have been there in the first place and should certainly not have been there for the length of time that they were.  NHS England statistics highlight that, of the 2577 people recorded as living in ATUs ,only 260 have transfer date and only 107 by June 2014 deadline.  More people appear to be going in to ATUs than are being moved out.

Connor and his family needed some additional services at a time of crisis.  There were limited local services which could be purchased.  This is unacceptable.  Why are we still not providing good local services?

Some issues to think about:

Did you know that in Norway it was made illegal to establish a service for people with intellectual disabilities for more than 10 people…..? In the UK it is still legal to set up a service for 30, 40 people.

Did you know that economies of scale do not exist if you care about whether people experience at least relatively good outcomes?   The bigger the service, the fewer the staff, and the less time staff spend with people and the lower the levels of engagement.

Did you know that people in supported living or those receiving individualised services are more likely to be receiving good support?

Did you know that good support is not guaranteed, regardless of how much the service costs?

Did you know that good support depends on the skills and motivation of staff working in the services and the leadership they receive?

Did you know that you can’t judge the quality of the service just by talking to the people providing the service, that you have to go and spend time observing (in addition to talking to people themselves where possible) to find out information about the quality of life of the people living there?

Did you know that only between 20 and 30% of people with learning disabilities receive good and consistent support that enables and empowers them?  Those with more complex needs including challenging behaviour are less likely to get good consistent support.

Did you know that even in services which are considered good……..

  • on average, people with IDDs only spend around 40% of their time engaged in some form of meaningful activity or interaction?   (By the way, this is the level of engagement  that we also find for people who are in their 80s).  Think about it – an average of 60% of the time doing nothing meaningful.
  • on average, people with IDDs will only have any contact (from staff or anyone else) for at most, 15 minutes in every hour?  That figure also includes negative contact, being told not to do things, having things done to you, just having your wheelchair pushed etc.  Imagine it.  That means for 45 minutes in every hour, no one talks to you or touches you. What a life of isolation…..

Did you know that on average people with IDDs are likely to get direct help to take part in meaningful activities and relationships for less than one minute in every hour?  (Isn’t that the point of services – that people need this help to take part in activities and relationships?)

Did you know that it doesn’t require more staff or cost more money to provide good support for people than it does to provide mediocre or even down right awful support for people?

Did you know that researchers in the UK have generated more research and resources on how to provide good quality services and support for people with intellectual disabilities and people with autism than almost anywhere else in the world?  What would Jim Mansell have said? Well actually he (and many others) have already said it.  It is all there in the Mansell reports.  Now all we need is action.

Tizard Centre have also adopted Day 23, the day of the Jim Mansell Memorial Lecture.