A negative culture

Staff at Orchard Hill did not treat residents as human beings with rights, says Joanna Perry

I have been to Orchard Hill. It was a depressing place which felt stuck in the past, detached from the good practice and dynamism that characterises many organisations and groups that work with people with learning difficulties today.

But I am frustrated by what seems to me to be a point made too often by inspectors and journalists: that staff in these institutional settings are somehow blameless – unwittingly abusing and being neglectful towards other human beings because they haven’t been trained to know differently.

We all know when a particular act is just plain wrong. And tying someone to a chair for 16 hours, or using a splint to stop someone biting their arm, or providing four hours of activity a week is all just plain wrong.

The reason why this happens is not because staff don’t know it’s wrong, it’s because the negative culture that flourishes in

institutions like Orchard Hill scares people into leaving or compliance rather than whistleblowing.

Services should start from the assumption that people with learning difficulties are human beings with the same right to respect, physical and psychological integrity and private and family life that the Human Rights Act 1998 guarantees us all.

Let’s take an example. John, like all of us, is protected by article 8 of the act and has the right to not be touched unless he wants to be. However, sometimes John hurts himself when he is upset. This means that staff will need to interfere with his right to not be touched because article 8 and article 3 also protect him from physical harm. But how to approach this balancing act? Putting John’s arm in a splint is a disproportionate response and breaches the act.

Rather, staff must be trained and supervised to use a combination of verbal and physical calming techniques, including brief physical restraint where necessary to support John to regain control, at which point staff must stop interfering.

Let’s think of Sue. She likes to eat when she is hungry. She also likes to shop for her food and sit in the kitchen and do what she can, and be around those who cook, smelling the food and watching the preparation. By telling Sue when and what she is going to eat every day, staff are interfering with Sue’s right to enjoy this simple activity.

Staffing and budgetary constraints are habitual excuses for interfering with people’s rights to an ordinary and varied life. However, they may not be lawful and this institutional approach violates the principle underpinning the Human Rights Act which is to make real each person’s right to be treated with dignity and respect.

If this right is to be interfered with, this must be admitted and then justified. Orchard Hill shows how the culture that some people’s bodies are to be touched, interfered with and manipulated, and their lives to be arranged for other people’s convenience becomes institutionalised. This must stop – and now.

Joanna Perry is policy manager, Victim Support. This is a personal comment

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