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Humiliation and people who have learning disabilities

Humiliation can get the better of anyone, but in learning disability practice, it is crucially important to be mindful for patients, says David O'Driscoll

The film I, Daniel Blake, director Ken Loachs powerful indictment of welfare strategy for people with disabilities, shows what the government makes people go through to get their benefits. Its a Kafkaesque cycle of bureaucracy, causing stress and humiliation. Watching it made me think about humiliation in the lives of people with learning disabilities and whether we need to think about it more.

One of the key elements of humiliation is being in a diminished position it is shameful, embarrassing and even degrading.

There are different degrees of humiliation: having to go to a food bank, which was powerfully shown in the film, for others maybe being on benefits and certainly being in poverty. Ken Loach argues that humiliating people is a

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The film ‘I, Daniel Blake’, director Ken Loach’s powerful indictment of welfare strategy for people with disabilities, shows what the government makes people go through to get their benefits. It’s a Kafkaesque cycle of bureaucracy, causing stress and humiliation. Watching it made me think about humiliation in the lives of people with learning disabilities and whether we need to think about it more.  


In the film I, Daniel Blake director Ken Loach argues that humiliating
people is a way of keeping them fearful. Picture: Alamy

One of the key elements of humiliation is being in a diminished position – it is shameful, embarrassing and even degrading.

There are different degrees of humiliation: having to go to a food bank, which was powerfully shown in the film, for others maybe being on benefits and certainly being in poverty. Ken Loach argues that humiliating people is a way of keeping them fearful in their low-paid work and it can lead on to greater abuse. Kofi Annan, former secretary-general of the United Nations, has spoken of how ‘all the cruel and brutal things, even genocide, start with the humiliation of one individual'. 

Humiliation can involve an audience and it be a feature of abuse. I was interested to read about a court case involving a care home where, under the prompting of a senior worker, another worker humiliated a service user. My impression was that the senior workers enjoyed the power of watching the sadistic abuse, the helplessness of the victim, almost as if they felt it was nothing to do with them.

I have noticed that this can be a feature of institutional abuse. As a psychotherapist working in a learning disability service I see my role as understanding the forces behind such crimes, as well as the pain of the victim. This can be the worst of it, being with a perpetrator who seems to enjoy the humiliation. Their mindset sees the victim as ‘worthless’ and ‘next to nothing’. In a way, you understand this as a process where the perpetrator feels powerful and strong. 

Challenging decisions

 As professionals, I am aware that sometimes we have to make decisions about a service user which can be painful and challenging. An example is having their children taken away from them, a devastating experience for anyone and one that is difficult to get over. It feels to me that they feel they are walking around with ‘bad parent’ stamped on their forehead.

While there are a number of factors in having children taken away, it is a complex situation. It can be the right decision. There is research which shows that professionals deal with service users more harshly as soon as they find out that one of the parents has a learning disability. I have been working with a man who lost contact with his children after a court case. As a result he is socially isolated, living on his own and suffering from depression. He does not sleep or eat well.

He told me he thinks of his children every day, forever hopeful that they will get in touch. Surprisingly, he engaged in psychotherapy, and I saw him for about a year. The word that summed up his predicament was ‘humiliation.’ He felt his ex-partner, the courts and services had humiliated him, leaving him with a sort of chronic despair. ‘I felt powerless,’ he told me. Colleagues were concerned about his suicidal feelings. 

Any act of humiliation can be experienced as traumatic. Like trauma, when someone is humiliated it can have long-term effects on the individual

I have spoken to many people about their experiences in long-stay hospitals who felt that living there was a humiliation. I have also worked with people who have experienced bullying – one woman self-harmed as a way to relieve the pain and humiliation. In some ways this reaction can be compared to that involved in the grieving process, because people go through a psychological process where they return to somewhere safe, to trusting relationships, or recovery may never be complete. 

There are many ways of helping someone. My service user felt it was important to be with him, to witness it, to hear his anger and to acknowledge that, while there is there no easy answer, he can carry on living. It is important for all of us in learning disability services to be modest and respectful, to think about our work with vulnerable people and our privileged status, and above all, to be humble.


About the author

David O'Driscoll is visiting research fellow, University of Hertfordshire, Hatfield, England

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