Austerity’s shameful effects on people with learning disabilities

In 2018 the prime minister predicted ‘better days ahead’, but austerity is still disproportionally affecting people with learning disabilities and their families

Despite predictions of ‘better days ahead’, austerity is still disproportionally affecting people with learning disabilities and their families, says professor Bob Gates

Picture: Alamy

The relationship between socio-economic factors and health is well-known and has been reported on for many years.

As far back as the Black Report in 1980 it was identified that the distribution of healthcare was determined by individual, community and national factors.

A national factor affecting the health of people with learning disabilities has been the long period of austerity this country has endured and is still enduring. This is disproportionally affecting people with learning disabilities and their families.

Prime minister Theresa May told the Conservative Party conference last October that austerity was over, saying: ‘There are better days ahead.’

Chronic and corrosive

As someone who has worked for nearly 50 years in learning disabilities, I have seen the chronic, corrosive and continuing effects that austerity is having on people with learning disabilities, resulting in everyday struggles.

People with learning disabilities and their families find that equality and equity elude them in so many ways: financially, educationally, in employment and health. It even compromises their human rights.

The continuing impact of austerity, coupled with a vacuum in specific learning disability policy, blights the lives of some of our citizens with learning disabilities, and this directly affects their families and carers in deleterious ways.

A book by retired teacher Neil Carpenter, published in 2018 and based on his work as a volunteer advocate, shows how adults with learning disabilities have been affected by UK government austerity measures. The book, Austerity’s Victims, focuses on five men in Cornwall with learning disabilities and compares their income and spending with national and county averages.

Left behind

It presents a compelling argument about the extent to which they have been ‘left behind’ and leaves the reader in little doubt about the harmful effects of current UK financial policies.

The book examines the men’s quality of life in the context of the ever declining support for them. When their spending was compared with the minimum income standard of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation policy research charity, and the UK and Cornwall medians, Carpenter found that their income was below the relative poverty threshold.

All these men had seen cuts in their support hours at home or day centre attendance, and two had their benefits cut. One was unable to have his disability living allowance transferred to a personal independence payment.

Disturbing reality

Most of these men lacked friends, and loneliness was a real problem for them. Their lives fell short of the definition of ‘well‐being’ identified in the Care Act 2014.

The book exposes a disturbing reality and argues that some people with learning disabilities are austerity's victims. A similar picture emerges in a thematic analysis of current literature on the effects of austerity on people with learning disabilities by academic Melina Malli and others.

The authors say: ‘Our review suggests that in the current climate of economic austerity, available funding to support people with learning disabilities is no longer aligned to their care needs.’

Living in the 21st century in a country that boasts of being the fifth-largest economy in the world, is this not a source of shame? How can this be acceptable?

Mantle of responsibility

This government, and health and social care institutions, through the caustic and long-term effects of years of austerity, are failing this vulnerable group of people and their families.

The mantle of responsibility to address this has been passed to advocates, parent groups and those collective advocacy organisations that are shouting the loudest, to collectively voice concern and outrage about the continuing subjection of this group along with the indifference about what some must endure on a daily basis.

Let’s hope there are better days ahead, but I wouldn’t rely on a politician for a truthful prediction.


Bob Gates is professor of learning disabilities at the University of West London

This article is for subscribers only