Sometimes it takes a crisis to reveal ignorance and prejudice
The coronavirus pandemic presented many challenges for the learning-disabled community. I have blogged about these issues and talked about them on previous episodes of The Music Man Project Radio Show. Everyone at The Music Man Project has attempted to mitigate these challenges, whether through online classes, musical instrument giveaways, improved internet access and even doorstep visits during lockdown.
Sadly, the pandemic has shone a light on a hidden discrimination that lurks beneath the surface of supposed equality. Sometimes it takes a crisis to reveal ignorance and prejudice, and perhaps one positive from COVID-19 will be a greater understanding of a diverse section of society who are too often bundled together as a single type, namely “Disabled”. While millions returned to freedom as lockdown gradually lifted, many individuals I serve had no such choice. Despite the public officially being allowed to leave their homes, many people with learning disabilities were tragically prevented from returning to normal life, even with the protections the rest of society used as our ‘freedom pass’. But people with learning disabilities are equally capable of following guidance, wearing face masks, social distancing and washing their hands. The majority also received the vaccination because of their increased physical vulnerability. Despite this, I witnessed huge regional inconsistency, ever-changing guidance and hidden discrimination against those who had left their family home to live a more independent life.
No doubt with good intentions, local officials have effectively discriminated against my community by introducing regional rules which, in effect, sent those who had been shielding back to the confines of their four walls, within days of breathing fresh air for the first time in over a year. The effect on their wellbeing and development has been devastating.
For my students, the situation was bizarre, confusing and inconsistent. Some were allowed to resume their activities as soon as they became available. Others were treated differently, not because of their COVID risk, but because of their residential situation and postcode. Healthy people were prevented from accessing vital services because they resided in supported-living rather than with their family. In effect, they were penalised for their independence. The same individuals could go shopping with complete strangers but could not attend COVID-secure educational activities, complete with face masks, temperature checks and social distancing.
Regional officials also stipulated that certain individuals living within their jurisdiction were only allowed to attend just one activity per week. Whilst plausible in its intention, the ruling was not shared by other regional authorities. Someone else with exactly the same disability and exactly the same residential status were free to attend any activity if they lived in a different street or they were funded by a different regional provider.
Of course, many secretly ignored the rules for the sake of their own mental health, but many others could not attend their regular activities without transport and assistance. When parents and friends attempted to rescue them from their confinement, or even pay for the services themselves, they received threats that their future funding would be stopped. All they wanted to do was enjoy the same opportunities as their peers.
To compound the issue, certain regional authorities decided that activities like The Music Man Project are to be classified as Day Care rather than Education. This is largely irrelevant in normal times when people with learning disabilities are free to attend whichever activity they want, regardless of their location or residential status. However, in times of enforced lockdown, this community was prevented from attending Day Care but could attend a College of Education. For some, the definition of education is not what they do but the status of the organisation delivering the education. The Music Man Project is a world-leading specialist music education and performance service run by qualified staff, described as outstanding by OFSTED, commended by the Royal College of Music and praised by UK Prime Ministers. Our students follow a curriculum which leads to ground-breaking performances on the most famous stages in the world. We provide 5 hours of musical tuition rather than care. The care is provided by families and social services. However, we were forcibly categorised as no different than Day Care for the elderly.
Even more bizarre were the examples of individuals who, despite living in their region for over 20 years, were subject to the authority of another region hundreds of miles away because that is where they came from originally. This meant that 2 people living in the same house, in the same bubble had to follow different rules, whilst both were free to share the air of hundreds of people in their local supermarket and then return to that same bubble!
One of my students who previously took a taxi independently to Music Man became so anxious about being out on her own following the pandemic that she wanted her mother to escort her in the taxi. This wasn’t allowed either so she continues to miss out to this day!
In times of crisis and fear, we must stand up for these people, not lock them away. Otherwise, we run the real risk of returning to the same mindset which thought it was appropriate to isolate people with learning disabilities in remote hospitals for their own good. People with disabilities are not ill. They need support to allow them to return to their lives safely. Let us all remember their historic battles to achieve equality and their momentous journey from a medical to a community model of care.
We must not group together a wide range of individuals under a single label from which they can never escape...