Response to Whorlton Hall by Dougal Hare, Interim Lead for our new Intellectual Disabilities Member Network

  • June 2019

In the light of the recent abuse and arrests at Whorlton Hall, the manner in which our society treats people with learning disabilities (intellectual disabilities) and autism is once more under scrutiny and rightly so. Many clinical psychologists work with people with learning disabilities and their families and carers, and are highly critical of the failings of Whorlton Hall and offer sympathy and support to the latest victims of such cruelty and abuse. I am also of the view that this latest outrage is indicative not just of yet another badly managed so-called care home, but of an out-dated and inappropriate understanding of people with learning disabilities and autism that, in the case of the former, dates back to the 1920s.

The previous instances of the abuse of people with learning disabilities uncovered at Ely Hospital in 1967 and at Winterbourne View in 2012 led to major policy changes but did not result in a significant shift in our understanding of the nature of learning disabilities. However, over the past 30 years, advances in genetics, neuroscience and psychology have demonstrated that far from being a homogenous group, people described as having autism and/or learning disabilities have a wide range of distinct genetic syndromes, such as for example Downs syndrome or Fragile X syndrome, as well as conditions such as foetal alcohol syndrome, all of which affect physical and neurological development. In all instances, such developmental problems persist over the entirety of the lifespan, which is sadly often severely limited as a result of their specific syndrome as well as from secondary factors, not the least of which is inappropriate, inadequate and sometimes harmful, care and treatment.

As a result of such breakthroughs, we are now increasingly in a position to move beyond the obsolete ‘one size fits all’ view of learning disability that underpins under-resourced generic services that have all too frequently become breeding grounds for neglect and maltreatment of some of the most vulnerable and disabled people in our society. Moreover, the under-paid and under-qualified care staff teams in such segregated services are often working in relative isolation from mainstream services and without access to effective and compassionate approaches such as Positive Behavioural Support to inform formulations and care planning.

Beyond helping the former residents of Whorlton Hall and other residential services to overcome the trauma of segregation and ill-treatment, I therefore believe that it is imperative that clinical psychologists and other professions abandon the pseudo-diagnosis of ‘learning disability’ and correctly identify these specific genetic and developmental syndromes so as to facilitate the provision of effective evidence-based care and support.

Dr Dougal Julian Hare
Interim Lead for ACP-UK Intellectual Disabilities Member Network