Letters: Disabled children

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The Independent Online

The hidden desperation of families with severely disabled children

Sir: The heart of any reasonable person will go out to Mrs Markcrow in the "unbearable pressure" she suffered for 37 years before the death of her beloved, very severely disabled son ("Mother is spared prison after killing Down's syndrome son", 3 November). But heartfelt sympathy is nothing like enough. The only surprising thing is how few family carers in Mrs Markcrow's intolerable situation come to public attention by finally cracking. Nobody knows precisely how many there are. Only they know what help they could use.

Since the millennium white paper Valuing People, and its emphasis on people with learning disabilities and their families, most work has been with the far less disabled who, with help, can speak up for themselves. The situation of families with very severely disabled grown-up children deteriorates as more children survive into adulthood and new syndromes appear.

While social services have statutory obligations, they have no means of saying that they themselves don't know how to cope, but they are brilliant at concealing that behind word screens. The reality for families, even when adequate respite care outside the home is available, is too often a succession of agency staff with limited experience. Reasonable respite care in the home demands training for large numbers of people in all the skills which people like Mrs Markcrow have grown over the years: I say "large numbers" because, unlike Mrs Markcrow their working conditions are controlled by law and they get time off.

Medical professionals know perfectly well the effects of sleep deprivation. According to your report, her GP didn't know how she coped. Treating her depression, if anyone had noticed it within everything else she had to suffer, might have helped. Healthcare professionals tend not to notice that mothers of people with severe learning disabilities are chronically, dangerously exhausted. On an outpatients bench they look like sad wrecks unable to control their children.

Carers' organisations exist, but they mostly concern themselves with the comparatively simple needs of more vocal carers of people who develop dementia or have a stroke later in life.

Without research into the lives of devoted mothers like Mrs Markcrow, without pressure for realistic training and imaginative resourcing, without better communication between the professionals who know the child at school and those whose job is to support him or her after leaving it, without placing the whole family really and truly at the centre of provision, as Valuing People required but which has not yet happened, more and more mothers will be placed in Mrs Markcrow's position.



Overseas doctors in a career dead end

Sir: Trevor Phillips is right to identify the often subtle forms of discrimination against staff and associate specialist (SAS) doctors ("CRE claims black doctors suffer the most from racism in Britain", 31 October).

The majority of the 12,500 doctors employed by the NHS in SAS posts qualified overseas. Lacking access to the informal social networks of UK doctors, they are frequently prone to bullying, discrimination, and professional isolation.

It is notoriously difficult for SAS doctors to qualify as consultants. Fewer than a third who responded to a recent BMA survey said they would recommend their career path to a medical student. Reasons given included lack of recognition, poor career progression, and heavy workload. Many described the post as a "dumping ground" or "dead end" and said they were treated as "second class".

Yet the amount of talent in the SAS grades is enormous. Many of these doctors clearly have the ability to practise as consultants, but are prevented from doing so. While this is clearly damaging to their careers, the real tragedy is that patients are being denied access to their skills.



Sir: Trevor Phillips has said some thoughtful and courageous things about multi-culturalism (Monday Interview, 31 October). However as a member of the London-based intelligentsia he seems to have lost sight of the fact that the majority of white people live outside London and the other big conurbations, where ethnic minorities make up a much smaller proportion of the population and so are difficult to meet.

I am white English, my partner is black Guyanese and we have children together. Racial friction happens in the UK as it does everywhere else in the world when resources and opportunities are threatened, spread too thinly or unfairly distributed. Racial harmony develops slowly through trust, fairness, genuine friendship, neighbourliness, intermarriage, children and not through the patronising and panicky initiatives of the metropolitan political class.



Regulated trade in wild birds

Sir: The potential for avian flu to spark a global influenza pandemic is first and foremost a human health issue, and one which should be taken seriously. However, the EU's recent one-month ban on imports of live captive birds other than poultry has also put a spotlight on the international trade in wildlife.

Your own recent coverage of avian flu (25 October) claims that "250,000 exotic birds are smuggled illegally into the UK each year". I believe many of the people promoting this view are motivated by a desire to see the ban on live bird imports extended after the health crisis has passed.

The reality is that international trade in the 1,700 species of wild birds regulated by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) is well managed and subject to robust tests for sustainability.

Many of the world's poorest communities rely on the earnings that trading wildlife can bring, and without this income people living in close proximity to wild animals may not have the same incentive to protect them. Developing countries need to be assured that unilateral trade bans will only persist as long as there are legitimate human health concerns behind them.

Whilst the UK might import several hundred thousand wild birds per year, the Mammal Society reports that about 55 million are killed each year by cats in the UK with, according to the RSPB, no evidence that this is having any impact on bird populations.



Britishness test asks the wrong questions

Sir: The new citizenship test does nothing to assist immigrants of an ethnic origin coming into this country. People will pass this test and continue to live isolated from wider society because the test gives them no insight into how they can mix socially or in the workplace.

Few people arriving in the UK spend time in the courts, in church, or with the Queen, so why are detailed questions asked about these matters? As someone who provides cultural awareness training for Asians new to the UK, I can say with some authority that key to their successful integration here is access to information that applies to what they will be doing - spending time at home, at work and in the villages and towns they plan to live in. To assimilate into British culture they need to know what they have to do to be able to drive a car, apply for a job and pay household bills. They need to know about Hallowe'en, Bonfire Night and Valentine's Day and be able to converse about sport, soap operas, UK current events and reality TV.

The "ivory tower" nature of so many of the Government's questions is a sad indictment of how out of touch they are and, worse, causes me to question to what extent they consulted members of the immigrant community, or kept their needs in mind at all.



Season of peril for hedgehogs

Sir: We were delighted that the hedgehog has been voted Britain's favourite garden animal (report, 2 November). Hopefully it will mean that bonfire piles in gardens will be thoroughly checked for hibernating hedgehogs before the festivities begin.

Every bonfire night hedgehogs, and other wildlife suffer horrific injuries or deaths because people didn't take a few moments to check the pile was safe to light. We issue an annual plea to people to check thoroughly any fire they are responsible for, and to ensure organisers of larger events they may be attending have carried out meticulous checks as well.

Hedgehog populations are in decline, so every effort is needed to keep these, Britain's favourite garden visitors, out of harm's way.



Dire consequences of threatening Iran

Sir: The implicit military threat made by Tony Blair against the regime in Iran for pursuing their nuclear ambitions seems to be, as the invasion of Iraq was, a simple-minded, dangerous folly.

As occupiers of Basra and the surrounding country, it is not possible for the UK troops to operate without co-operation of the Shia residents. Military action against Iran, or indeed the threat, will dynamite any good will that exists, with dire consequences.



Sir: Quite rightly the world has condemned the President of Iran for publicly saying he wishes to see the State of Israel "wiped off the map". At the same time we hear no words of universal condemnation when influential Christian fundamentalists in pulpits across the United States, and now in Britain, call for the whole of the biblical land of Palestine to be given to the Jewish nation in order that Christ may return.

The implication is the expulsion of millions of Palestinians (to where?) and the wiping of a nation from the map. As a Christian, I wonder what Christ makes of this proposition?



Sir: While there is much going on in the world to give Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, and indeed all of us, a very bad headache, the threat of an Israeli pre-emptive nuclear strike is one which even a half aspirin will cure ("Hitler couldn't have put it better", 31 October).

While Israeli security tactics on the ground leave a lot to be desired, committing genocide on a scale similar to that perpetrated by Hitler against the Jews is about as likely as Bush or Blair coming clean about the true reasons for war in Iraq.



Sir: Yasmin Alibhai-Brown presents a curious view of the founding of the State of Israel. She alleges the land was stolen from the Palestinians. When Israel began in 1948 there was no state of Palestine and, in fact, there never was.

There never was a time when there were no Jews in the Holy Land. In fact there were Jews in this land for more than two thousand years before it was overrun by the Arabs in the seventh century - and the land was taken from the Jews.

The situation in 1948 was that the British mandate was ending. Jewish immigrants had been coming in for some time to increase the Jewish presence. The Jewish National Fund had been providing money for Jews to buy land legally. The United Nations restored a national home for the Jews in the land where their presence had dated back almost to 2000BC.



The Blunkett fiasco

Sir: At the heart of the Blunkett fiasco is the absurdity of a parliamentary democracy, supposedly based on finely tuned checks and balances, in which the Prime Minister is both judge with regard to the appointment of ministers and jury when it comes to their standards of conduct and compliance with the rules. When such laxity of controls is allowed, the only effective check is the kind of press hounding that so irritated Mr Blunkett and Mr Blair.



Sir: To lose one cabinet post may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose a second one looks like sheer recklessness.



Best Mate denied burial

Sir: So Best Mate cannot be buried on the race course where he recorded his first success and ran his final race ( "Red tape denies Best Mate a racecourse burial", 3 November) because of the Defra regulations on the burial of animals, introduced as a result of BSE and rigidly adhered to following the foot-and-mouth epidemic. Since when did horses either contract or carry BSE, let alone foot-and-mouth?



Corrupted by power

Sir: It was only a matter of time before someone brought up the idea that successful women are, on some level, not real women (Susan Tomes on Margaret Thatcher; letter, 3 November). However, if you believe women rise to power by going against their "true" natures, then the same argument applies to powerful men. It would be wonderful to find out what the world would be like if people could gain power while staying true to themselves, but the world as it is doesn't represent the true nature of men or the true nature of women.



Forces for peace

Sir: Paul Hardy Carter fancies that the future primary role of the military will be guarding our shores (letter, 2 November). No so: 54 of the last 59 wars have been civil wars in which civilians have been slaughtered by their compatriots. Two million children have been killed and four million maimed in the past ten years. British forces have brilliant record of punching above our weight as peacekeepers in Europe and Africa. Our record in disaster relief is commendable. Both missions are hopelessly irrelevant to our possession of a souped-up nuclear weapon.



Late start

Sir: Not being a regular train traveller, I was surprised to hear on the train to London yesterday the apology for the train being late - it was "due to the train leaving the depot late". So that's alright then.