To read on The Guardian website:
Note: In the UK, the term of ‘Learning disability’ is used instead of ‘Intellectual disability’.
We need to confront the ignorance surrounding learning disabilities
Katrina Scior Friday 28 August 2015
A new study reveals that our attitude towards those with learning disabilities is still riddled with prejudice. It’s time for a sustained campaign of enlightenment
If you are among the approximately 1.4m children and adults in the UK born with a learning disability, it’s likely that through no fault of your own you will experience a number of injustices in your life. From feeling largely invisible and isolated to being excluded from many of the activities that make life worth living – friendship, love, employment, leisure and further education – the chance of you living the kind of life you want to is vastly reduced.
As a society that claims to be progressive, we should be worried by this. On a personal and professional level I have been involved in building a better understanding of attitudes towards people with a learning disability for many years, but I recently realised that more action is needed. Understanding isn’t enough.
That is why my colleague Shirli Werner and I changed direction, and shifted our focus to tackling negative attitudes. We found a real lack of understanding and knowledge when it comes to learning disability in the UK and elsewhere. A lack of thorough research in this area means that tackling these negative attitudes is even more difficult. Confusion is rife, and our profound lack of knowledge about what works and what doesn’t is having a very damaging impact on people’s lives.
A 2008 survey by Mencap revealed that 73% of people were unable to give an accurate example of a “learning disability” when asked. In our own research, only around a third of adults in the UK, when presented with a case example, recognised that the person might have a learning disability. The “knowledge” and “understanding” that do exist can often enforce negative stereotypes and make life even harder for people with a learning disability. Even today, some people in rural Africa think that learning disabilities are caused by witchcraft – and in the UK the majority of people with a learning disability say that they have been the victim of bullying.
Our review Changing Attitudes to Learning Disability, published by Mencap, points to a double standard in public attitudes towards people with a learning disability. The British Social Attitudes Survey in 2009 found that just 41% of parents would feel very comfortable if their child had a classmate with a learning disability, compared to 76% for physical and sensory disabilities. This highlights a key problem: on the whole, people say that those with a learning disability should be treated equally, but at the same time many behave in subtly prejudiced ways which reinforce negative stereotypes.
A lack of familiarity and feelings of insecurity around learning disability appear to be causing hostility. Yet there are three things we could do right now that could improve the situation.
The first is to hear from those in the know. The increasingly loud voice of self-advocates is improving things. But we need to see and hear many more people with a learning disability in the public arena and for others to support them in speaking up.
Gavin Harding MBE was elected as Selby’s mayor – Britain’s first mayor with a learning disability. Whether it is in the media, or teaching at workshops and conferences, it is hearing directly from people with a learning disability that produces the greatest positive shift in people’s thinking. We need more high-profile figures to lend a voice to this cause and support self-advocates in raising awareness of learning disability and challenging the negative attitudes.
The second is to harness the potential in young people. Much has been made of findings that much of the abuse and harassment of people with a learning disability is perpetrated by young people. We need to unlock the huge potential for positive shifts in social attitudes that lies with the younger generation.
These days, many secondary schools I visit have large boards up with Stonewall and LGBT campaigns prominently displayed. Our struggle has more in common with these movements that created seismic shifts in public attitudes than we may think.
There’s no reason why that same prominence can’t be given to messages that focus on respect for people with a disability, and against disability hate crime, ensuring that people with a learning disability are explicitly included in positive messages.
Finally, we should increase employment. According to figures from IHAL, the NHS-funded Learning Disability Health Observatory, only around 7% of people with a learning disability in the UK are in any form of employment. That’s not only shocking, but also points to a vastly untapped route to improving the lives of people as well as improving attitudes. Contact is the prime avenue for raising awareness and tackling ignorance. (…)