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‘We do not want your pity’

Is it helpful if workers supporting people with learning disabilities show pity, asks psychotherapist David O’Driscoll

Is it helpful if workers supporting people with learning disabilities show pity, asks psychotherapist David ODriscoll

A classic collection of short stories about the Second World War called The Human Kind by Alexander Baron contains a thought-provoking story.

The tales recount Barons experiences fighting for the British Army on the Italian front. In one of the stories, called Mrs Grococks Boy, he writes about Raymond, a child in a mans body. Raymond is desperate to fight and to prove his worth to the other men.

When Raymond fails an entrance test, he pleads with the company commander who takes pity on him and allows him to serve.

Baron describes the mens different reactions to Raymond kindness, contempt and pity.

Pity model treatment. Photo: Getty

Reading this story got me thinking about pity. Anyone in multi-disciplinary team of learning disability professionals

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Is it helpful if workers supporting people with learning disabilities show pity, asks psychotherapist David O’Driscoll

A classic collection of short stories about the Second World War called The Human Kind by Alexander Baron contains a thought-provoking story.

The tales recount Baron’s experiences fighting for the British Army on the Italian front. In one of the stories, called Mrs Grococks’ Boy, he writes about Raymond, a ‘child in a man’s body’. Raymond is desperate to fight and to prove his worth to the other men.

When Raymond fails an entrance test, he pleads with the company commander who takes pity on him and allows him to serve.

Baron describes the men’s different reactions to Raymond – kindness, contempt and pity.

pity picture
Pity model treatment. Photo: Getty

Reading this story got me thinking about pity. Anyone in multi-disciplinary team of learning disability professionals works with people who are suffering.

Variety of reactions

In my role, I see a lot of people who are grieving. We all have to deal with the pain following a loss at some point and we will get many responses, hopefully kindness, compassion even understanding. We may invite ‘pity’.

The word pity upsets many people with disabilities today and we may be told: ‘I do not want your pity.' But as it means ‘sorrow for another suffering’ and ‘the attendant desire to suffer with, to be of help’, surely most of us working in support services would want to offer pity?

Wolf Wolfensberger, who has been called the ‘philosopher of learning disability’, has discussed the historical role of pity in the lives of people with learning disabilities. He writes that a ‘pity model’ took over in treatment in about 1870.

People with disabilities were segregated from society in order to protect and shelter them.

Respect, not pity

However, Wolfensberger argues a successful model of management has to be based on respect, not pity, and there is a danger that those pitied will be seen as less than human.

After 25 years the ‘pity model’ was replaced with a more pessimistic view of people with learning disabilities. Now they were seen as ‘subhuman’, a ‘menace’, needing to be tightly controlled and even dangerous. Wolfensberger argued that the ‘pity model’ led to people being incarcerated in long-stay hospitals.

Many disability campaigners point to other risks with pity. In the past some charities used pity as a tool to raise funds for people with a disability. I remember a statue of a boy wearing calipers being used as a collection tin. 

Was it suggesting ‘I bet you are pleased you’re not like that?’ Disability campaigners rail against the idea that we are looking down from a lofty position at some poor soul and stress the importance of having a rights-based agenda.

Tailoring to cases

In my work as a clinician I often have to work with my feelings of pity. I need to be open to them and to be able to think about them and discuss them.

I had been seeing a female service user for roughly two years for psychotherapy who had been referred when her mother became terminally ill. Her mother recovered a few times before relapsing and eventually dying.

During these ups and downs, I felt ‘pity’ for her. Never quite knowing what was happening with her mother was emotionally demanding for her and she wanted my pity. I think she felt that it showed my concern and understanding of her situation.

Yet in other contexts, if she felt anyone pitied her, she could become furious. She hated being thought of as ‘weak’ or ‘learning disabled.’

And I only have to think of her to realise how complicated this concept is.

About the author

David O'Driscoll

David O’Driscoll works as a psychotherapist in specialist learning disability and forensic services at the Hertfordshire Partnership University NHS Foundation Trust
 

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