Deborah Orr: This shoddy veneer of 'inclusion'

An inquest heard that this mother with learning difficulties had all five of her children taken into care
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The Independent Online

It used to be a refuge for Quakers. But for half a century now, the village of Botton in north Yorkshire has welcomed the mentally disabled, who live and work there with their families and carers. On Thursday, with an unfortunate titular flourish, Channel 4 will screen The Strangest Village In England, an hour-long documentary based on six months of filming in the community.

It used to be a refuge for Quakers. But for half a century now, the village of Botton in north Yorkshire has welcomed the mentally disabled, who live and work there with their families and carers. On Thursday, with an unfortunate titular flourish, Channel 4 will screen The Strangest Village In England, an hour-long documentary based on six months of filming in the community.

The timing of the programme is good, for it comes when questioning voices are beginning to be raised about the policy of "inclusion" that has, for decades, shaped conventional wisdom about our attitudes to caring for our most vulnerable citizens. Botton exists in contradiction of such policies.

The community may style itself as "a thriving social experiment". But there are many powerful voices who disagree with that assessment. Anne Pridmore, chairman of the British Council for Disabled People, for example, is on record as having described the place as "a ghetto".

Similarly, the cerebral palsy charity Scope recently announced that it was no longer going to provide supported homes for the disabled, because it considered that this should be part of government housing policy, not the responsibility of a charity. Scope, like many other charities, will in future concentrate on lobbying and awareness-raising.

Such uncompromising and even mildly militant attitudes are widespread among disabled intellectuals, and are a passionate corrective to the prejudice of the past. It is not so long ago that ghettoisation was the norm for even the most mildly disabled. Today, the idea that this kind of community should be voluntarily embraced is repugnant to many, who believe that it undermines the drive to provide for the disabled within the mainstream.

Yet, there is growing unease about these prevalent attitudes and a suspicion that they might themselves be overly reactive or, at the least, impossibly idealistic. Last week, the philosopher Mary Warnock expressed doubts over her previous endorsement of "inclusion" for school children. She believes that the idea that children with disabilities should, whenever possible, be catered for in mainstream education, under statements of special needs, is well-meaning. She no longer feels, however, that it is really helping all children in the way that it should.

Her views chimed with those of many parents who have struggled to find suitable schooling for their special needs children, sometimes even resorting to setting up their own schools in the absence of schools provided by the local authority. Nevertheless, special schools continue to close, since the present government is even more committed to inclusion that the previous one was.

In such a prescriptive ideological climate, it is easy to see why a community like Botton might be under suspicion. Yet the reality is that, for most families caring for disabled people, support becomes less rather than more as the disabled relative passes from childhood to adulthood.

It is not unknown for very elderly parents to be caring 24 hours a day for middle-aged dependents, sometimes with just an hour's respite care a week. When there are no caring relatives in a disabled person's life, it is hard sometimes to see how even the most benign of inclusion policies, and the most well-funded bureaucratic support, can provide the most vulnerable with the sense of belonging and continuity of care that they need.

Yet there is not much evidence that, after many years following policies of inclusion for children, there is a lot of effort to extend that policy into adulthood. In fact, the evidence is shockingly to the contrary. At a recent inquest in the Black Country, for example, a verdict of suicide was declared by coroner Robin Balmain in the case of Heather Cooper, 30. This mother of five with learning difficulties had had all five of her children taken into care, despite having support in caring for the children from her own parents and brother.

She had been told by social services that, if she passed a parenting course, they would allow her to have her youngest, a two-year-old boy, back home with her. Four weeks into the 12-week course, she was told she was failing it. She went to her GP, who described her as "weeping and suicidal", and sent an urgent message about her condition to Sandwell Mental Health Trust, which took no action. Two days later, she hanged herself at her home in Smethwick.

This particular incident is singularly tragic. But for years now, it seems, a worrying pattern in the treatment of parents with learning difficulties has been hidden because the family court which adjudicates in such matters, is private. However, a few weeks ago a local councillor approached the national press when the treatment of a family in his ward was so unacceptable to him that he defied the family court's legal requirement of secrecy to publicise the case.

This couple, who have been together for 10 years, had their three-year-old daughter and 11-month-old son taken away from them last October as they were deemed too "slow" to be parents. They did not see their children for six months, and then were told they would be given to a new "forever mummy and daddy" by Essex County Council. Contact with their children would henceforth be confined to twice-yearly photos of them and progress reports from their new parents.

Social workers admit the children appeared well looked after, but say "the youngsters were at risk of neglect because their mother didn't follow proper routines, took too long to brush her teeth and change the baby's nappies, left the little girl to play alone, had difficulty learning how to cook simple meals and did not encourage her daughter to sit on a potty". By contrast, the 37-year-old father, who has worked for the same firm for 22 years, and does most of the family's cooking and housework, was considered to have too many routines. It also stood against him that he showed "irritation" at the interventions of social workers.

When the Daily Mail journalist Fiona Barton published their story, she was approached by many others with similar concerns. According to David Congdon, Mencap's director of external relations: "Forty to 60 per cent of parents with a learning disability get their children taken away while the evidence is that, with a little bit of support, many are quite capable of looking after their children."

When one considers all this, it makes our pretensions at the "inclusion" of children, and of adults, to be a pretty shoddy veneer job. If this is the kind of treatment meted out to parents with learning difficulties in Britain today, you can see why it is that a village like Botton remains attractive to so many disabled adults.

d.orr@independent.co.uk

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